Constitution Day at Duke

2015 Speaker Historian Louis Masur


Constitution and Citizenship Day commemorates the signing of the Constitution by delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. It also recognizes those who “by coming of age or by naturalization” have become United States citizens (36 U.S. Code § 106). Constitution and Citizenship Day is unique among American holidays in that its primary purpose is to encourage civic education. In 2004, Congress  decreed that publicly funded schools must provide educational programming “pertaining to the Constitution” on Sept. 17.

Celebrate Constitution Day With Us
* Attend our annual Constitution Day Lecture

* Read the Constitution and related texts

* Check out books by past Constitution Day speakers

The Duke Program in American Values and Institutions marks Constitution and Citizenship Day by giving the Duke community and the general public opportunities to learn about efforts by the American founders and subsequent generations to create a “more perfect union.” Our Constitution Day events examine the political philosophies and real world events that shaped the American Founding. They also consider the Constitution’s impact on American political development and examine competing interpretations of the Constitution. Finally, we explore efforts by abolitionists, suffragettes and others to ensure that American society more fully lives up to the idea that all human beings are created equal and endowed with “certain inalienable rights.”

The Constitution and Related Texts

We believe that the study of historical documents and speeches is essential to understanding American values and institutions. We encourage everybody to mark Constitution Day by reading the original document.  We have also provided a few other texts that shed light on the meaning and significance of the Constitution.

The Constitution

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams – In a letter written a few months before the thirteen colonies declared independence, Abigail Adams (wife of revolutionary leader and future President John Adams) encouraged her husband to “remember the ladies” when drafting laws for the new nation.  John Adams rejected his wife’s proposal, mockingly suggesting that she sought a “despotism of the petticoats.” In 1919, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, giving political power to women beyond what either Adams could have imagined.

Declaration of Independence

Articles of Confederation – Written in 1781, the Articles of Confederation created a system of political institutions that was replaced by the Constitution.

“Vices of the System” – Right before the Constitutional Convention, James Madison reflected on the limitations of the Articles of Confederation. Madison played an important role at the Constitutional Convention, and later became America’s forth president.

Federalist Papers – Written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison to defend the Constitution during the state ratification process. In Federalist 10, Madison famously responded to critics who argued that representative institutions cannot be sustained in a territory as large and diverse as the United States. According to Madison,  large, diverse societies are less likely to be dominated by majority factions. Federalist 51 contains the most well-known defense of the Constitution’s system of checks and balances. In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton argued that the Supreme Court should have the power of judicial review.

Bill of Rights The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Marbury vs. Madison Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling in the 1803 Marbury vs. Madison case established the precedent of judicial review, or the practice in which the Supreme Court strikes down laws it deems incompatible with the Constitution.

No Compromise with Slavery – Some opponents of slavery were critical of the Constitution, as they believed that the Fugitive Slave Clause, and Three-Fifths Class sanctioned chattel slavery.  In this speech, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison referred to the Constitution as a “covenant with death.”

 “The Constitution and Slavery” – In this famous speech, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, argued that The Constitution should be considered an anti-slavery document.

Gettysburg Address – The battle at Gettysburg was a turning point in the American Civil War, in which the Union army stopped the Confederate invasion of the North. After the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short address in which he resolved that the war would result in a “new birth of freedom.” Some scholars echo Lincoln in describing the Civil War as a “Second Founding” that resulted in a Constitution that more fully lived up to the idea that all men are entitled to “live, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—which outlawed slavery, and guaranteed equal protection under the laws to all citizens—were a direct result of the Civil War.

2014 Speaker Historian Gordon Wood

Books by AVI Constitution Day Speakers

A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, Carol Berkin (2019)

American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People, Jean Yarbrough (2018)

Silence and Democracy: Athenian Politics in Thucydides History, John Zumbrunnen (2017)

The American Dream in History, Politics, and Fiction, Cal Jillson (2016)

Lincoln’s Last Speech, Louis Masur (2015)

The Making of the Constitution, Gordon Wood (2014)

Natural Rights Republic, Michael Zuckert (2013)

 Historian Gordon Wood’s 2014 Seminar, “The Making of the Constitution”