No birthday is complete without a cake, not even for the U.S. Constitution.
Yesterday the National Constitution Center celebrated Constitution Day and the 225th anniversary of the document’s signing. The day’s events included panel discussions, a naturalization ceremony and a birthday celebration with cake and singing “Happy Birthday.” The day was part of Constitution Week, a weeklong series of exhibits and events.
Elementary and middle school groups and members of the general public flooded the museum at 5th and Arch streets.
Admission to the center and all of the exhibits, including the 360-degree theatrical production “Freedom Rising,” was free thanks to the generosity of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the center’s partner for the event.
At 9:30 a.m. on the museum’s balcony, Christopher Phillips, a Penn professor and senior fellow in the Critical Writing Program, discussed the meaning of the Constitution in what he calls a “Constitution Café.”
Who are “the People” in “We the People”? Phillips asked the crowd of school-age children, referring to the opening words of the Constitution. Various answers flew out from the crowd.
“‘The People’ are the Americans in this country,” one child said.
“It’s the citizens,” said another.
Phillips strained his voice above the din of hundreds of uniformed school children milling about the museum.
He noted the original Constitution does not stipulate a voting age and that the founders wanted the states to have the freedom to decide on the criteria themselves.
“Show of hands, should 12-year-olds have the right to vote?” he asked the audience. Immediately, a group of small hands shot up in the air.
He explained to the students that if they wanted the right to vote, they could potentially petition their state’s legislature and get it approved.
Virtually no other country in the Western world is governed by so-old a document, but this does not worry Phillips. “The founders were smart,” he said. “They allowed for change.”
Phillips bemoaned the fact that so few people have actually read the Constitution. “We need constructive skeptics who can challenge authority,” he said in an interview after the talk.
He added that the original signers of the Constitution expected that the document itself would be changed every 20 years or so.
As Phillips explored the meaning of the phrase “We the People” with a group of school children on the balcony, a group of adults were busy enacting that very same tenet right across the hall.
In the museum’s F.M. Kirby Auditorium, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held a naturalization ceremony.
“Don’t forget the cultures that you brought with you,” Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor John E. Savoth urged the crowd of soon-to-be citizens and their families.
At the back stood various members of the news media and Constitution Center employees.
Aryan Himanshu, a student at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology, was overjoyed at his new citizenship, but he also acknowledged how much others have had to struggle. “I just had to wait five years because I have a green card,” he said. For others, the ceremony marked the end of a much longer wait.
The Office of the Vice Provost for University Life offered Penn students a chance to experience Constitution Day by providing free transportation for 40 students to the event.
Students attended a panel discussion at 2 p.m. entitled “Is Pennsylvania’s ID Law Constitutional?” Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell participated as part of the university’s Year of Proof program.
Mengchuan Li, an international student and first-year graduate student in the School of Education said, “[Rendell] encouraged college students to become active and involved citizens” by contacting their states’ governors.
“I think I have a slightly different perspective than American students,” Li said. “I didn’t realize voter registration could be such a big issue.”
The Law School also joined in the Constitution Day celebration. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Biddle Law Library exhibited select papers of James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as a member of the first U.S. Supreme Court.
Back at the naturalization ceremony, a cohort of new citizens experienced the Constitution in action. “It’s not people wearing it on their sleeve,” Savoth said when asked about the ceremony. “It’s a pure statement of the great things this country has to offer.”
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