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The Constitution Across The Nation

May 2024
4min read
 

As Michael Kammen notes in A Machine That Would Go of Itself, celebrating the Constitution is no easy task: the very idealism that distinguishes it as a political document makes it elusive in the realm of daily life. Unlike the bicentennial of the Revolution, there are few events to reenact; only a small portion of the country was actually the site of any action; and in a sort of last revenge for the Articles of Confederation, even a definite anniversary date is denied the Constitution, since every state ratified it at a different time. Despite these difficulties, many organizations have plunged in and come up with programs that promise both to celebrate and to educate, scheduled around September 17—the day the delegates to the Convention signed the Constitution —or the day their state ratified, or, out of long-standing habit, July 4. (The bicentennial doings at Philadelphia are noted elsewhere in this issue.)

In the Media

Of particular interest among the television shows honoring the anniversary is a series produced by the American Bar Association and KQED in San Francisco and scheduled to run in the fall, in which Peter Jennings will lead discussions on the First Amendment, the power of the courts, the rights of defendants, and the systems of checks and balances. In September, National Public Radio will air 30 five-minute spots on similar themes.

Various newspapers have been honoring the Constitution for the past two years in a series of nationally syndicated articles called The New Federalist Papers, which will continue through 1987. In addition, the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation, together with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Parent Teacher Association, plans a national teach-in for all schoolchildren on September 16. Educational packets geared to various grade levels will be distributed to schools, and former Chief Justice Warren Burger and the President will address the nation’s students via television.

State by State

Here is a partial listing of the many local celebrations planned for the bicentennial:

California

On September 17, at the replica of Independence Hall in Buena Park, near Los Angeles, actors will reenact the signing of the Constitution, following which new citizens will be naturalized.

San Diego has chosen September 26 for its festivities and will invite diplomats and senior government officials to lunch aboard an aircraft carrier in the harbor. In the evening the Navy has scheduled a Parade of Lights, in which the ships of the fleet will brighten the night sky with a blaze of electricity—the first such celebration since V-J Day.

Delaware

John Dickinson was a prominent delegate at the Constitutional Convention, and on July 3, at his plantation near Dover, there will be a lateeighteenth-century fair complete with crafts demonstrations and a mustering of the militia. To commemorate the bicentennial, Dickinson Plantation is reconstructing the barns, corncribs, and smokehouse that were on the property when Dickinson lived there.

On December 3 citizens will reenact the ride Delaware’s thirty ratifiers took from their homes scattered around the state to the tavern near Dover where they took the decisive vote.

District of Columbia

Outside of Philadelphia the most appropriate place to commemorate the Constitution is the repository of the document itself, the National Archives. An exhibit called “The American Experiment: Creating the Constitution” will be on view through February 1989. Alongside the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Articles of Confederation are examples of documents on a more personal scale, including an appeal from a Revolutionary War veteran to Congress: “I have lost my Bagage and am not yet fully cured of my Wounds received in the Field—I am in want of Money and Cloaths and have no Family or Friends in this Country to advance any thing for me....” A companion exhibit, “Living with the Constitution,” will run through September 1988, with photographs, cartoons, and documents relating to voting rights, school desegregation, war powers, and other issues of constitutional law. Beginning September 13 the Archives will hold an eightyseven-hour vigil to allow a large audience to see the document.

At the Library of Congress from May 14 through September 17, an exhibit called “The American Solution” will focus on the period between the Articles of Confederation (1781) and the approval of the Bill of Rights (1791). James Madison’s notes and those of the other delegates will be on display alongside rare working drafts of the Constitution.

The Smithsonian is sponsoring a series of bicentennial seminars with the American Bar Association and the University of Virginia on such topics as censorship, surveillance, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. The series opens at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (May 18-19) and concludes at the Smithsonian (May 20-23). At the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, an exhibit titled “With Liberty and Justice for All,” opening October 1, examines the constitutional issues involved in the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

Illinois

The Chicago Historical Society will inaugurate its new American History Wing with an exhibit called “We the People,” opening on September 12. The show will include pamphlets, maps, engravings, costumes, and artifacts, as well as the first newspaper printing of the Constitution, in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, September 19,1787.

Kentucky

Because it did not become a state until five years after the delegates met in Philadelphia, Kentucky’s celebrations will center on its own early history. Three prairie schooners will tour the state throughout 1987, stopping at county fairs, schools, and shopping malls to teach about early Kentucky farm life. The town of Madisonville will devote nine days, June 19–27, to a festival celebrating its namesake, James Madison.

Massachusetts

At the Museum of Our National Heritage, in Lexington, an exhibition of Constitution-related documents will be on view from April 19,1987, through March 15, 1988. Of particular note are the letters from the Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry explaining why he opposed the Constitution.

On Saturdays from April through October, Old Sturbridge Village will dramatize constitutional issues in the form of encounters that might have taken place in a nineteenth-century New England town, like monthly meetings of the local debating and antislavery societies.

New York

From April 18 through September 19, the New York Public Library presents “Are We to Be a Nation?,” covering the period between the Albany Plan (1754) and the Bill of Rights (1791). Alexander Hamilton’s manuscript “Plan of a Constitution for America” and Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of Hamilton, Washington, and Jay will be on view.

Virginia

On Fridays and Saturdays from March 13 through October 31, and on November 26, 27, and 28, Colonial Williamsburg will sponsor a two-hour walking tour exploring the links between eighteenth-century Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital, and the Constitution, highlighting the contributions Virginians made to the document.

Ohio

Perhaps the most overlooked anniversary of 1987 will be the bicentennial of the Northwest Ordinance, which established federal authority in the Midwest. The Ohio Historical Society will try to rectify this oversight with an exhibit that celebrates documents of regional importance as well as the Constitution. In addition to the Northwest Ordinance, the Treaty of Greenville (1795) will be on view; it was not until this treaty formalized the defeat of the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers that most of Ohio and southeastern Indiana became safe for settlement. The section of the exhibit devoted to the Constitution will include a letter from George Washington discussing States’ Rights and Jefferson’s copy of The Federalist Papers. The exhibition will be at the Ohio Historical Society from July 13 through September 17, after which it will travel to the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana; the Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan; the Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois; the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, in Madison; and the Minnesota Historical Society, in St. Paul, staying at each institution for about two months.

—James Long

 

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