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A True Celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day

September 17, 2010

In President Obama’s proclamation declaring today Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, he justly observed that our “founding document reflects our core values and enshrines the truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that we are each endowed with certain unalienable rights…. These principles serve as a beacon of hope for Americans and those who seek new lives in the United States.”

Unfortunately, some conservative groups and Tea Partiers are using this day not to celebrate these timeless principles, which all Americans can support, but to brandish the Constitution as an ideological weapon. In the words of conservative Fox News columnist Colin Hanna:

The theme of reaffirming the Constitution as the basic statement of purpose of our national government is one that unites the Tea Parties, hundreds of Congressional Town Hall meetings, the Mount Vernon Statement, Glenn Beck’s call to turn our nation back to God and dozens of first-time candidates’ political campaigns. 21st-century America is falling in love all over again with the 18th-century document that will celebrate its 233rd birthday this Friday.

If these Tea Party groups want to claim a special bond with the Constitution, then they ought to embrace the Constitution as it is, not as they want it to be. As CAC demonstrated in our blog series Strange Brew: The Constitution According to the Tea Party, the Tea Party’s vision of the Constitution often bears a closer resemblance to the failed Articles of Confederation—the weak central government, hostility to constitutional amendments—than to the actual U.S. Constitution. Contrary to Tea Party claims—which were addressed in detail in CAC’s Issue Brief Setting the Record Straight: The Tea Party and the Constitutional Powers of the Federal Government—the Constitution grants the federal government broad and substantial powers to address national issues such as health care, environmental protection, and financial system reform.

In addition, as we celebrate the Constitution, it is important to embrace the entire document, including the Amendments that “We the People” have added over the past two centuries. Many Tea Partiers and other conservatives denigrate or even seek to repeal key Amendments—like the 14th, 16th, and 17thasserting that these Amendments “tinker” with the document signed in 1787. But our Nation’s founders included in their 1787 text of the Constitution the power and procedures to amend our Nation’s charter. In other words, from the very birth of our Constitution, it was understood that We the People could and would add to it.

So what we celebrate on Constitution and Citizenship Day is not an “18th-century document”—it is our actual Constitution, signed in 1787 but amended over time, making our Nation’s charter a remarkably durable and contemporaneously relevant document. In the spirit of the 14th Amendment in particular, which grants automatic citizenship at birth to children born in the United States, it should also be remembered that today is Constitution and Citizenship Day. Tea Partiers seem to have forgotten that aspect of today’s celebration, as they purport to honor the Constitution even as they call for repeal of the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause.

It would behoove Tea Partiers and their allies to take a look at the history of the holiday itself. The origins of Constitution Day can be traced back to 1940, when “I’m an American Day” was established by Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt to celebrate those Americans who had become citizens that year, whether through naturalization or reaching the age of majority. In 1952, the holiday was moved to September 17th and was dubbed “Citizenship Day.” While Citizenship Day was intended to honor the signing of the Constitution as well as celebrate the nation’s newest citizens, it wasn’t until 2004 that the day officially became “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” This shift was the result of a proposal by the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), which required that all federal agencies and federally-funded schools promote the celebration and discussion of the Constitution. It is important to note, though, that the holiday was not separated from its equal goal of also recognizing, in the spirit of inclusivity and the 14th Amendment, America’s newest citizens.

Taking into account Constitution Day and Citizenship Day’s history, then, the planned festivities of Tea Partiers and their allies take on a rather inconsistent tone; their anti-immigrant initiatives—such as Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) push to repeal birthright citizenship or Arizona’s “show us your papers” law—are not only in direct contrast to the principles behind today’s holiday, but these efforts are also in explicit contradiction of the Constitution itself. The manner in which Tea Partiers are picking and choosing which part of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day they find appealing is tellingly reflective of the way in which this movement picks and chooses which parts of the Constitution it likes.

Tea Partiers should not be allowed to claim special ownership of a day celebrating American citizenship and the creation, content, and genius of the Constitution while simultaneously choosing to ignore or even reject parts of the document itself—including the 14th Amendment, which perhaps best exemplifies the spirit of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. Today, and this weekend, while Tea Partiers and their allies are distributing pocket Constitutions and claiming to walk in the Founders’ footsteps, let’s hope they take a moment to break from their ideological rhetoric and actually read the Constitution (we suggest not skipping over Article V). It might also help to brush up on the history of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day and remember the promise of equality and citizenship that we should all celebrate, today and every day.