The holiday that got away: Why we need to honor the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15
Imagine if they canceled Independence Day.
What if the federal government declared that the Fourth of July was no longer a holiday? We would be told to report for work, cancel fireworks displays and picnics and go about our business the same as any other day.
There would be outrage. Americans would be angered by the suggestion that we shouldn’t celebrate freedom. Not recognize Independence Day? Why, that would be un-American.
And yet we do the same thing every Dec. 15, the birthday of our Bill of Rights, a document that guarantees core personal liberties, including freedom of expression and faith, a fair judicial process, the right to bear arms and protection against unreasonable government searches.
In embracing these fundamental freedoms in 1791, we set ourselves apart from all other nations on the planet — then and ever since. It is one of the most important days in American history and yet almost no one takes the time to reflect on the importance of Dec. 15 and the anniversary of these fundamental freedoms.
What does it say about America that we zealously celebrate our government’s Declaration of Independence from another government and totally overlook the American people’s Declaration of Independence from its government?
In mid-December, Americans will shop for the holidays, finish final exams and make plans for New Year’s Eve. No one will wish you a happy Bill of Rights day. There’s not even a Wikipedia page on Bill of Rights Day.
It’s not as though no one ever attempted to give this day the respect it deserves. On Aug. 21, 1941, a joint resolution of Congress called on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to designate a day in honor of the Bill of Rights.
On Nov. 28 , 1941, the Los Angeles Times reported that “President Roosevelt today called on the American people to observe Dec. 15 as ‘Bill of Rights Day,’ to cherish the ‘immeasurable privileges which the charter guaranteed’ and to rededicate its principles and practice.” FDR called on government officials to fly the flag and for all Americans to “observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and prayer,” noting that Adolf Hitler’s greatest fear was our freedom of speech, press and religion.
An appropriate kick-off celebration was planned at the Waldorf Astoria featuring actress Helen Hayes and Eleanor Roosevelt. Nine days after FDR’s proclamation, though, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and everything else took a back seat to World War II. This was the holiday that got away and it’s never been properly recognized since.
Last year, a group of educators, journalists, artists and others banded together to help build a greater understanding of the First Amendment with a nonpartisan and educational campaign called 1 for All. Obviously, the First Amendment leads off the Bill of Rights, and we thought there might be a way to rekindle FDR’s dream of a national celebration, particularly this year, on the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.
What would it take? How could you get the attention of the American people and encourage them to re-engage with this long-lost holiday? Our colleagues at the American Society of News Editors thought we might come full circle in Washington, D.C., turning to the nation’s leadership to complete the work that Congress and FDR advocated.
ASNE reached out to the House of Representatives and asked for a resolution urging all Americans to honor this important day. They were quickly rebuffed, with an explanation that this Congress was too busy to do ‘commemorative’ bills. Weeks later, the House passed a resolution re-affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto.
So much for the First Amendment right of petition. If America’s going to give the Bill of Rights the credit it deserves, it’s clearly up to We the People.
It would be nice if all of us could take a little time at dinner on Dec. 15 to ask our kids what they know about the Bill of Rights, and help them understand why it’s such a significant day. Beyond the teaching opportunity, there’s also a little something in it for young Americans ages 14-22.
The Knight Foundation is funding a scholarship opportunity called “Free to Tweet.” Students who wish the First Amendment a happy birthday by tweeting about the importance of these fundamental freedoms on Dec. 15 are eligible to compete for one of 22 scholarships (one for every decade since ratification). They just have to use the hash tag #freetotweet.
All Americans are urged to join us online (www.freetotweet.org) and help generate the kind of attention and energy that this date so richly deserves.
The irony is that most of us honor the Fourth of July because we believe it’s a day on which Americans secured their freedom. But the truth is that the Declaration of Independence really only secured freedom for white and wealthy men. It took freedom of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly — the five freedoms of the First Amendment — to lead to suffrage for women, the emancipation of slaves and equality for all.
Please join in celebrating freedom this Dec. 15. It’s long overdue.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and the American Society of News Editors, and a founder of 1 for All.