How Did Americans Observe the 100th Anniversary of the Signing of the Constitution?

This post is by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

How do you observe Constitution Day? This year marks 232 years since the September 17, 1787, signing of the final draft of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and this anniversary led us to wonder how Americans of the past may have commemorated the occasion. What might the 100th anniversary, for example, have been like?

“One Hundred years Old.” The sun. September 16, 1887, Image 1

For more insight into the centennial, we explored the digitized historic newspapers available in Chronicling America, and came across reports about that day’s events in various newspapers—from West Virginia to Minnesota, Tennessee to Utah, Maine to Texas, and other states.

An article in the September 16, 1887, issue of New York’s The Sun, One Hundred Years Old: The Celebration of the Centennial of the Constitution,” details events of the previous day, September 15, describing it as day one of a three-day commemoration in Philadelphia.

The article captures and describes the fanfare of that first day: the big parade, “one of the largest industrial processions ever seen in the country;” elaborate patriotic decorations; pleasant weather, with “…a clear sky, obscured here and there only by fleecy clouds;” and the spirit and energy of the large crowd. Encourage your students to explore the depictions of the events in other newspapers, as well.

The Sun article also describes a few of the “Constitution Makers” and details their respective contributions to the shaping of the Constitution as well as the Constitutional Convention itself. Among the historical figures featured are Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, and Rufus King. Interestingly, neither George Washington nor James Madison is described, and students may speculate why. Students may also research the figures described in the article,  or others who were present at the convention (e.g., James Madison) or attended the 1887 celebration (e.g., President Cleveland). These digital collections provide a starting point:

You can also remind students that by 1887, there were 15 constitutional amendments, and that, at that time, roughly two decades had passed since the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. It would still be approximately three more decades before the passage of the 19th amendment. Invite students to reflect on the historical context of the centennial commemoration. Ask them to consider the various perspectives of the diverse Americans who may have been living at the time of this centennial, and how they might have viewed or perceived this celebration.

To extend their thinking, students may reflect on the evolution of the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. This research guide on the Constitution may provide some helpful resources.

In addition, your students may explore the amendments that were added after the centennial of Constitution’s signing. Encourage them to research the amendments that were ratified by the 150th anniversary or the bicentennial, as well as the amendment process itself and the circumstances and events that may lead up to amendments. Encourage further research and exploration in the Constitution Annotated resource.

Please let us know about your Constitution Day classroom conversations and activities!

 

 

 

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