Constitution Day: September 17th

Written by Benjamin Clanton and Meghan Campbell, Government Publications:

On September 17, 1787, delegates to the aptly named Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the U.S. Constitution, setting in place the structure of our nation’s government that is still followed today. We here in Government Publications regularly handle documents that relate to what was adopted on that day over two hundred years ago. One of the wonderful things about the Constitution is that avenues were put in place to make additions and changes to its original form. With that in mind, we have written about a couple of Constitutional Amendments that both intrigue us and have personal meaning to us as individuals. Enjoy and have a wonderful Constitution Day!

Join us on the 2nd Floor Commons Area in McWherter Library today from 12 – 3 pm, where you can pick up a U.S. Constitution and snacks, and watch a documentary titled The Words that Built America.

Thirteenth Amendment: Abolishing Slavery

Though an elegant document, and one that is still considered world-changing over two centuries after its creation, the U.S. Constitution was not perfect.  Perhaps nothing displays this better than the need for the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally abolished slavery in this country. As someone with a background in history, this amendment stands out to me for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it addressed what many scholars have termed as the ‘original sin’ of the Founding Founders, who struggled morally about how to handle slavery. The men who created and signed the Constitution largely punted on the matter, cementing the institution’s legal standing in the newly created nation through such decisions as the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of a state’s slaves as population when determining seats in the House of Representatives.

Following the devastation of the American Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment not only created the legal framework to end the vile institution of slavery, but also eliminated what it termed ‘involuntary servitude.’ This protected African Americans in the post-Civil War South from being locked into a new form of slavery through unfair labor practices and other restrictions by white landowners and lawmakers in their home states, and has since been seen as a protection for workers against becoming unfairly locked into a system of constant exploitation. The Thirteenth Amendment, along with the other ‘Reconstruction Amendments,’ indeed attempted to create a new era in our society.

However, the fight for equality that these efforts strived for was far from complete. The next century would be marked by struggle. Jim Crow laws in the South created a segregated society marked by ‘equal but separate’ spaces and constant efforts to disenfranchise African American voters. The eventual (and overdue) successes of the Civil Rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century finally saw a turning of the tide against systemic racial discrimination. The ramifications of this amendment are still felt today, as it serves as a harsh but necessary reminder of the dark history of slavery and racism in our nation and as protection to us as American citizens against immoral and unjust servitude. (Written by Benjamin Clanton.)

Nineteenth Amendment: Extending the Right to Vote

Almost one hundred years ago, after a decades-long crusade, women across the United States were granted the long deserved right to vote. The First Women’s Rights Convention (also known as the Seneca Falls Convention) occurred in 1848, and allowed the women’s suffrage movement to gain more traction. It laid the groundwork for the proposal of an amendment that supported a woman’s right to vote to the U.S. Constitution. From there the Nineteenth Amendment was first presented to Congress in 1878, and eventually passed on June 4, 1919. Finally the amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Ratification was in part thanks to the state of Tennessee, which became the final state to vote in favor of the amendment. In fact, young Harry T. Burn, a member of the Tennessee General Assembly was the man who swayed the vote to ensure the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. Although, all of the credit cannot exclusively be given to Mr. Burn; his mother was a vital player in his decision to approve of the amendment. Initially, Burn was against the suffrage movement and his intent was to vote “no”. What finally changed his opinion was a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, in which she encouraged her son to “…be a good boy” and vote for the amendment. With this victory, women across the nation earned the freedom and right to vote. Despite the fact the amendment specified that the enforcement of the right to vote would not be discriminated upon the basis of sex, women who belonged to minority groups were not granted the same privilege. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women in minority groups were eligible to vote in the same capacity as their white counterparts.

If one were to take a look at the United States today, it seems almost impossible that a woman’s right to vote was only made legitimate just shy of a hundred years ago. Though the Nineteenth Amendment has become a very recent reality in the eyes of history, its effects are significant and endlessly important. It has provided generations of women an opportunity to decide the kind of representation that they want on a local and national scale. Its influence cannot be understated, and has provided pathways and opportunities for women who have changed our country and our nation’s government.

From becoming elected officials to having the ability to serve in and for the White House, the Nineteenth Amendment has allowed women to not only gain the privilege to vote, but to eventually be able to become the enactors of change within our political system. A woman’s right to vote can and has altered political discourse in this country; and has proven that everyone has a voice that needs to be heard, seen, and represented. This is inherently what the Constitution has aimed to provide to the citizens of the U.S. in the first place: a nation that can continuously work toward being a fair, balanced, and prosperous place for all its people. (Written by Meghan Campbell.)

The Constitution Today: A Living Document

It is possible that some would see the U.S. Constitution as a dusty old document written and signed by people (all white men, all long dead) over two hundred years ago, one with language set in stone that contains unbendable rules on how the country should operate. However, many others see it as a living, ever changing organism that fuels debate on how our society will function going forward. For example, there are ongoing debates about the original articles which lay the framework of our government: How much power does the President REALLY have? Is Congress truly representative of our citizenry all these years later? Should Supreme Court justices still be allowed lifetime appointments? Oh, and is that pesky Electoral College antiquated or still necessary?

There are also ongoing discussions on matters covered in the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional Amendments that we see in the news every day: gun control, immigration and its relationship to American citizenship, freedom of the press, voting rights, the list truly goes on and on. Based on people’s personal experiences and political allegiances, it often seems that interpretations of these documents are countless and often hotly contested. Thus, as our society grows and changes, we will likely see a continuing debate over how our Constitution and its Amendments apply to it in modern day and, ultimately, the future. (Written by Benjamin Clanton.)

Learn More

Here are some online resources if you want to further your knowledge on the Constitution:

National Archives Digital Reproduction of the Constitution

U.S. Constitution Annotated App (Apple App Store)

Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government

Our Documents (via NARA)

ConstitutionFacts.com Quiz

Federalist Papers

Articles of Confederation

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