The 5 Q's: Understanding Constitution Day with Nicole Foster Shoaf

Nicole Foster Shoaf

Q: What is Constitution Day in the United States?

A: Constitution Day, Sept. 17, is the federal observance of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Since 2004, all publicly funded educational institutions and agencies are mandated to provide some type of educational programming focused on the history of the U.S. Constitution.

Q: Why is the Constitution so important?

A: It is the basic, skeletal structure for our government. It is vague, imperfect and antiquated in many respects, but it provides a core structure that outlines the limits of what government can do. The Constitution does not provide clear answers for all of our modern questions — no document written with quills could possibly explain how the government ought to handle GPS tracking or facial recognition technology — but it provides the framework that we use to limit government power and protect individual rights and liberties.

Q: How was Constitution Day developed?

A: Our modern Constitution Day was established in 2004 with a measure wedged into a congressional spending bill. Prior to 2004, we had Citizenship Day, which focused on similar values.

Q: What is the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence?

A: The Declaration of Independence was a document produced by the Second Continental Congress in 1776 declaring that the 13 British colonies that would become the U.S. were no longer subjects of the British crown, and offering some explanation of their reasoning for this split. It is, in many ways, an aspirational document. It was a rather bold move for a handful of scruffy colonies to think they had the power and ability to throw off English rule. This act of treason against the British crown set the stage for the development of an independent United States.

In contrast, the U.S. Constitution is an outline for government. Our current Constitution is actually the second government, following the ineffective Articles of Confederation. The Constitution lays out a government of limited power, with authority divided horizontally across branches and vertically between the central national government and the states. It was a bold move in its own right, proposing a central government considerably stronger than that in the Articles of Confederation, with a presidency with broad but vague powers.

Q: How will Missouri Southern State University recognize Constitution Day?

A: This fall, Constitution Day will focus on the 200th anniversary of the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise not only set the parameters for Missouri’s admission to the Union as a slave state but also touched off four decades of controversy by stipulating which future organized territories would become free states and slave states. The compromise ultimately contributed to a constitutional debate and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which pitted the property rights of white Americans against the humanity of Black Americans.

Dr. Megan L. Bever, from the MSSU history department, will deliver the keynote address, which will be followed by a Q&A session and panel discussion linking this historic compromise with contemporary events.

Normally, MSSU Constitution Day is open to all, but this fall we are unable to host any outside visitors. To ensure everyone has the option to fully participate, we will be livestreaming the event on Zoom.

The event will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday. Livestream the event at https://zoom.us/j/99703395779?pwd=akgzem11ZE5yTW42WGlhSmJ1R1poZz09. For more information, contact IPA@mssu.edu.

Nicole R. Foster Shoaf is an associate professor of political science at Missouri Southern State University.