Today is Constitution Day. "Constitution Day--what's that?" you may well ask. It's not exactly a well-known holiday. In fact, it's only existed in an official sense since 2004, when a bill requiring schools to teach about the Constitution on September 17 was passed. But official or not, today marks the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. It may not be celebrated with fireworks like the Declaration of Independence is on July 4, but the Constitution is, if anything, more vital to the freedoms that we enjoy as a republic.
For this year's anniversary, my company, Welcome Books, is publishing yet another gorgeous illustrated version of the Constitution by master calligrapher and illustrator Sam Fink. We previously published the book in a numbered, signed limited edition portfolio one of which found its way into an exhibition that the Supreme Court in the great state of Pennsylvania mounted when we published the first trade and limited edition in 2006 and NBC Weekend Edition covered it. An earlier trade edition gave rise to a talk of Sam's to a sixth grade class covered by CNN.
The words are from our founding fathers. But the illustrations are all Sam's. He is ninety-four now and his passion for freedom is unabated. To him, the Constitution epitomizes the unique American attachment to freedom. Born in 1916, with grandparents who emigrated from Russia, Sam has a deep appreciation for the rights that are guaranteed by this country's founding document. In school, most of us had to memorize a list of rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly... and that's just the First Amendment. The way Sam sees it, "Our constitution has a set of rules that are so important that without them, there would be chaos. The Constitution keeps us human," he says describing it as the backbone of our country, creating a society where freedom is a central principle, keeping us free.
In a letter to me, Sam discussed his understanding of freedom in terms of his own personal experiences. When he was 18, at the height of the Great Depression, it meant being able to hitchhike across the country with $50 in travelers' checks--all his savings--in his pocket. Much later, it meant setting himself a task--like copying out and illustrating the entire Constitution--and thriving in the process of restricting himself to just those words.
In a way, that's what the Constitution itself is: a set of rules, but rules designed to protect freedom, not limit it.
Ray Bradbury said of this book that every family should have one. I agree. I think that to understand this nation, we all need to read the Constitution ourselves once in a while, and come to our own understanding of its meaning. I hope Sam's beautiful, playful book will help you do that. It is an accessible heirloom.
Like a spine, the Constitution is long, flexible, made up of lots of pieces, and if it breaks, we’re paralyzed.
To illustrate the article that defines the President’s office, Sam chose Washington and Lincoln, two Presidents whose greatness almost all Americans can agree on. He drew their faces close together so that one eye is shared between the two, hinting at how Lincoln saw Washington as a great influence.
After the Constitution was written, it took nine months and an energetic nationwide debate before the nine needed states had voted for ratification. It wasn’t until 1789, over a year and a half after the signing, that the last of the original 13 states—Rhode Island—voted in favor of the Constitution.
As the founding text for separation of church and state, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and protest against government policies, the First Amendment may be the part of the Constitution that is referenced most often in daily conversation.
The precise grammatical meaning of the Second Amendment, which concerns the “right of the people to bear arms,” has been a subject of legal contention for years. The lesson: commas matter, especially when weapons are involved!
Part of the Constitution’s beauty is that it is a living document, capable of changing as people realize the nature of injustices. The 14th amendment, which ended slavery, and the 19th amendment, which extended the right to vote to women, are prime examples.
Not every Constitutional amendment has stood the test of time. In 1919, Prohibition had enough support to be incorporated into the nation’s foundational document. Almost fifteen years later, it was repealed by the 21st Amendment.