It’s Bill of Rights Day! “. . . a fairer and more just world.”
The Constitution and its amendments seem pretty straight forward. The old girl is over 200 years old and has, for the most part, held up well. But helping kids understand the fragile nature of the ideas and practices embedded in the document can be difficult . . . especially when they see, hear, and read about attempts to ignore or circumvent those ideas and practices.
It’s been a long year. Especially if you’re a social studies teachers. (Government teachers, how ya doing?)
So perhaps it’s appropriate that we celebrate Bill of Rights Day every year on December 15. We get the cake and candles out. Shoot off some fireworks. Sing some old union organizing songs. Replay scenes from the Hamilton musical. Do it up right.
Wait . . . what? How many of you didn’t know that today is Bill of Rights Day?
Okay. I see those hands.
And like many of you, I had no idea such a thing existed until a few years ago. I consider myself a bit of a government, poly sci nerd. You’d think such a day would be big on my calendar. But only recently did I learn that back in 1941, FDR declared December 15 to be Bill of Rights Day, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. So it’s been around a while.
And we probably need to make a bigger deal out of this. Civic literacy and a clear understanding of the nuance embedded in the first 10 Amendments seems a bit low right about now. We’re all probably due for a refresher course.
FDR observed in 1941 that
It is especially fitting that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights. (These institutions) . . . sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn.
In a recent presidential proclamation, former President Obama wrote:
Each generation is tasked with continuing the work of perfecting our Nation. In the 224 years since this codification of our most fundamental freedoms, America has been propelled by the persistent effort of her citizens — people from all walks of life who have accepted the challenge of pushing to expand liberty to all. The same American instinct that sparked our revolution and spurred the creation of the Bill of Rights still inspires us to step forward to defend our founding ideals.
It is what inspired a groundbreaking convention in Seneca Falls, drove courageous people to march in Selma, and started a transformative movement for LGBT rights at a bar in New York City. Generations of heroes who believed America is a constant work in progress have advocated and sacrificed to realize that progress and have worked to uphold the belief at the heart of the Bill of Rights. Free men and women have the capacity to shape their own destiny and forge a fairer and more just world for all who follow.
Today, we stand on the shoulders of those who dedicated their lives to upholding the meaning of our founding documents throughout changing times — a mission made possible by the fundamental liberties secured in the Bill of Rights.
And I know your day will probably be over by the time you get to this. But some of you may still be right in the middle of the Constitutional Period and you government folks can fit this stuff in just about anytime. So a few ideas and resources:
- The National Archives have been the caretakers for years. Start the celebration with their videos, lessons, resources, and highlights.
- Don’t forget the Library of Congress.
- 15 fun facts about the Bill of Rights.
- The NewseumEd folks have some great stuff on Freedom of the Press and other 1st Amendment rights.
- The National Constitutional Center has a nice page with a few videos, some teaching ideas and a few other resources.
- iCivics.org, a awesome program sponsored by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has a great simulation called Do I Have A Right. The sim goes beyond the scope of the first 10 Amendments but your kids should be playing it anyway. iCivics also has a teacher page with some great resources.
Not everyone was a fan. Need a little rebuttal? With a twist? The musical Hamilton follows the life of Alexander Hamilton and is a different way to look at the debates happening during ratification of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
These truly are critical conversations to have with our kids. When we lose sight of the protections and permissions written into the Constitution and those first ten amendments, we risk losing the very thing that makes us Americans. Several years ago, iCivics founder and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner said it very clearly:
The strength of these rights and freedoms depends on how firmly they stand in the hearts of our citizens.
So go ahead and celebrate! Assemble peacefully, read a newspaper, don’t quarter any troops in your house, go out and get that speedy trial you’ve always talked about, and don’t forget to practice those guaranteed unenumerated rights.