Celebrating the First American on Constitution Day

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich and Speaker Newt Gingrich

More than 230 years ago in Philadelphia, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787. Eleven years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, this historic event marked an important milestone for our remarkable experiment in self-government.

Symbolically, the signing of the U.S. Constitution was the reward for years of toil and bloodshed in the Revolutionary War. It sent a signal to the world that the principles of freedom, liberty, and elected government would prevail. In a more practical sense, it was the official start of the United States government.

For more than two centuries, states and local governments recognized Constitution Day in various ways – such as “I am an American Day” and “Citizenship Day.” However, it was not federally recognized until 2004, when former Senator Robert Byrd offered the Constitution Day amendment to the fiscal year 2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act. 

Along with officially observing Constitution Day nationwide, this amendment mandated that all federal employees receive training materials on the U.S. Constitution when they begin public service – and each year on September 17.

Additionally, the law requires that: “[e]ach educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17 of such year for the students served by the educational institution.”

This educational requirement is vitally important, but it has not been enough to preserve our Constitution and history. Unfortunately, we are currently doing a poor job of teaching the next generation of Americans about our nation’s founding, our core principles, and the great sacrifices of those who forged our exceptional country.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), scores in American history are the lowest across all subjects and grade levels.  Only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 15 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of 12th-graders are proficient in American history. Scores in civics are also alarmingly low, as only 27 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth- and 12th-graders are meeting NAEP standards.

As some forces in America seek to revise and reimagine our history – and teach our children to denigrate and condemn our nation’s founders – these trends will only get worse.

Those of us who understand the importance of our nation’s past must continue to counteract efforts such as The New York Times 1619 Project and the imposition of Critical Race Theory in our nation’s schools. We must cure this historic amnesia and find better ways of sharing our American story.

This is why we are relaunching “The First American,” our award-winning documentary about the life and legacy of General George Washington, this Constitution Day.

Washington was truly indispensable to America’s founding. Without his military leadership in winning the Revolutionary War and his political leadership in forming our republic, there would be no U.S. Constitution – or United States of America at all.

Virtually every one of our Founding Fathers held Washington in the highest regard and knew that the moral force in him transcended politics or personal ambition. There was a reason Washington commanded the Army for eight years, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served two terms as the first President of the United States.

Studying Washington and his life will help Americans young and old gain a more complete understanding of the principles and ideals on which our nation was founded – and a deeper appreciation for why we celebrate Constitution Day.