National Constitution Day
In 2005, the Department of Education implemented “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” to be recognized every September — on the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution (9.17.1787). As we celebrate this year’s anniversary, we would do well to look back, way back, then forward again.
Over the past months, we have seen vandalism of monuments dedicated to American presidents and builders of our Constitution, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Spurred by supposed quests for justice, this vandalism has also touched historical figures who fought for racial equality such as abolitionists Mathias Baldwin and John Greenleaf Whittier. Is the conflict surprising? Not really, when one considers what many of our schools are teaching on American Founding Principles.
In early September, students whose parents pay large sums of tuition at Vanderbilt University took a quiz with this question: “Was the Constitution designed to perpetuate white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery?” According to reports, if a student checked false, the answer was marked wrong. Vanderbilt described this class as the “largest ever offered with over 800 students”.
The Vanderbilt professor’s premise for the question demanded a certain answer, but the premise is false. For instance, escaped slave and abolitionist scholar, Frederick Douglas, said this: “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a single sentence or syllable of the Constitution needs to be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.”
George Washington, who was elected as president of the convention that drafted our 1787 Constitution, stated this: “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].”
These descriptions, from an escaped slave and our first President, certainly does not bolster Vanderbilt’s narrative of our Constitution.
In a broader sense, we must answer the question: What was distinctive to America’s founding: slavery or abolition? A sincere study of our history provides the clear answer. Abolition, of course. While slavery was being practiced around the world, the distinction of America’s founding was the effort to end it (recognition is in order to Pennsylvania’s Christian Quakers who first birthed the movement).
Moving forward, we would serve our children—and society—well to teach the full story surrounding our Constitution: a document that granted no power to the institution of slavery, provided more freedom for self-determination than any other, and laid the foundation of upward mobility that attracted millions of people from around the world—from all races, creeds, and socio-economic statuses—to call this land home.
Christopher P. DeSanctis is Head of School at Gateway Academy in Staten Island, NY. Christopher can be reached at email@example.com.