By William Allerton III, Chairman,
NSSAR Government Relations Committee and President, SAR Foundation
In the National Archives’ Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, President General Larry J. Magerkurth, flanked by Archivist of the United States David S. Fierriero and Secretary General Stephen A. Leishman, announced the Sons of the American Revolution would lead a national commemoration this year of the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. PG Magerkurth said the commemoration of this historical milestone was in keeping with the National Society’s objectives and would provide the SAR an opportunity to give the nation a much-needed history lesson.
The Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom, with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution prominently displayed, was an appropriate setting for this announcement. Few organizations can rival SAR’s contributions to the creation of the National Archives. At its first annual Congress in Louisville in 1890, the SAR approved a resolution recommending that Revolutionary War records stored in boxes and barrels at the State Department be removed and placed in fireproof storage with proper indexing and public accessibility. This resolution resulted in the U.S. Congress enacting a law on July 27, 1892, directing the War Department to collect the Revolutionary War records. A Revolutionary War Records Committee was appointed at each annual Congress from 1890 to 1912.1
In 1903, the U.S. Congress authorized the purchase of land for a National Archives and, in 1913, Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury to prepare a design and cost estimates for a National Archives building. In 1914, the SAR appointed a Special National Archives Committee to lobby Congress to appropriate funding for construction of the National Archives building. Although funding was stalled by the first World War, the SAR was not deterred and continued its lobbying efforts through the 1920s. In 1926, the U.S. Congress finally appropriated $2 million for a National Archives Building on the Mall Triangle. The depression curtailed construction, but the National Archives was finally completed in 1937 to preserve all the archives and records of the United States. In 1984, the 50th anniversary of the National Archives, Robert M. Warner, archivist of the United States, wrote to President General Carl F. Bessent to acknowledge SAR’s vital support in establishing the National Archives.2
In his meeting with PG Magerkurth and SG Leishman, Ferriero acknowledged SAR’s longstanding support for the National Archives and the preservation of our nation’s Charters of Freedom. PG Magerkurth reminded Ferriero that SAR leadership in preserving the Constitution was not limited to the creation of the National Archives. The SAR also was in the vanguard of designating September 17 as Constitution Day. Iowa Society President Elmer M. Wentworth (SAR President General, 1916-1918) prevailed upon the Iowa legislature to proclaim the first Constitution Day on Sept. 17, 1911. At the 1917 Annual Congress, David L. Pierson of the New Jersey Society proposed that Constitution Day be celebrated across the nation. Pierson served as SAR Constitution Day chairman and members of his committee included notables Calvin Coolidge, William Howard Taft,
Charles Evans Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge and Gen. John J. Pershing. New Jersey Gov. Harold Hoffman signed a Joint Resolution of the New Jersey Assembly that recognized and credited Pierson, of East Orange, N.J., as the originator of the national observance of September 17 as Constitution Day.3
Thanks to the patriotic leadership of SAR, Constitution Day celebrations spread quickly throughout the country. By 1922, SAR chapters and state more than 60,000 Constitution Day celebrations across the nation. In 1949, all governors issued Constitution Day proclamations and all school superintendents were requested to allot time for observances. In 1938, the San Diego Chapter suggested celebrating National Citizenship Day as part of Constitution Day for all newly naturalized citizens. On Feb. 29, 1952, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation proclaiming September 17 as Citizenship Day. In 1955, Eisenhower signed legislation proclaiming September 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, and the week in which September 17 falls as Constitution Week.4
More than a century following the proclamation of Constitution Day, SAR’s work is hardly over. While most Americans profess a reverence for the Constitution, not all are knowledge- able about it. A 1954 Gallup Poll showed 69 percent of respondents did not know the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are the Bill of Rights.5
When the nation celebrated the Constitution’s bicentennial in 1987, a survey by the Hearst Corporation found that a majority of American adults still did not know that the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the original Constitution.6 In December 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed seniors at the nation’s elite colleges and universities to determine what they knew about our nation’s history. Questions regarding American history were drawn from high school curriculum. Four out of five – 81 per- cent – of seniors from the top 55 col- leges and universities in the U.S. received a grade D or F. They could not identify Valley Forge or words from the Gettysburg Address or even the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution. Scarcely more than half knew general information about American democracy and the Constitution. Less than one quarter (23 percent) correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”7
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough laments, “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much these young people – even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning – don’ know. It’s shocking.” While McCullough is quick to note the problem with teaching history, he says that teachers are not all at fault. “It’s not their fault our children are ignorant. It’s our fault. I mean parents and grandparents of the oncoming generation. We have to talk about history, talk about the books we love, the biographies and histories.”8
For nearly 125 years, SAR has been doing more than just talking about our Constitution. For more than a century it has been celebrating Constitution Day and teaching youth about the inestimable blessings of being an American. The NSSAR Government Relations Committee is working with compatriot members in the U.S. Congress to enact federal legislation to commemorate the Constitution’s 225th Anniversary. Resolution and proclamation templates will be posted on the SAROfficer list server to assist chapters and state societies in working with their governors, state legislatures, mayors and city councils to join in SAR’s celebration of the Constitution’s anniversary. The SAR Foundation is joining the celebration by offering a commemorative James Madison lapel pin and medallion in recognition of qualifying contributions to the Foundation for the Center for Advancing America’s Heritage. Fighting historical illiteracy and inspiring young people to learn respect for our country’s history are the cornerstone of SAR’s Center for Advancing America’s Heritage. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”9
As PG Magerkurth and SG Leishman reflected on their up-close viewing of the Constitution and tour of the Charters of Freedom – led personally by the Archivist of the United States – they couldn’t help but reflect on an anecdote often told about an encounter between Benjamin Franklin and Elizabeth Powel outside the Pennsylvania State House shortly after the Constitutional Convention adjourned. Powel asked Franklin, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”10
Compatriots of the Sons of the American Revolution know this admonition all too well. As stated in our SAR Pledge, we “reaffirm our faith in the principles of liberty and our Constitutional Republic, and solemnly pledge ourselves to defend them against every foe.”
- Winston C. Williams, ed., Centennial History of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution 1889-1989. Paducah, Ky,: Turner Publishing Company, p. 10.
- Ibid, p. 10.
- Ibid, p. 9.
- Ibid, p. 9.
- Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro, The rational public: fifty years of trends in Americans’ policy preferences, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 11.
- John J. Patrick, Robert S. Leming, Resources for Teachers on the Bill of Rights, ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, 1991, p. 42.
- Anne D. Neal, Jerry L. Martin and Mashad Moses, Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 2000, p. 2-3.
- Brian Bolduc, Don’t Know Much About History, The Weekend Interview, The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2011.
- Lloyd S. Kramer, ed., Paine and Jefferson on Liberty, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1988, p. 94.
- Richard Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, The Random House Publishing Group, New York, 2009, p. 412.