A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Mike Denham: Constitution Day reminds us to renew commitment to civic history, duties of citizenship

FRANKFORT – It may not be celebrated as much as Independence Day, but Constitution Day is arguably just as important. While July 4 recognizes the birth of our nation, Sept. 17 commemorates the day we established the cornerstone of our government and secured our rights as citizens.

In the 228 years since that journey began, the U.S. Constitution has become the oldest charter among the world’s major countries and still remains, at 4,400 words, the shortest.

Interestingly, two of the men who played the biggest role in our country’s independence did not sign the Constitution. John Adams was in Great Britain and Thomas Jefferson was in France.

Over the years, Constitution Day has evolved into a time to renew our commitment to civic history and our duties as citizens.


The need to do more is certainly there. According to the results of a national survey last year, only about a third of adults can name all three branches of government while another third cannot name any. A survey from several years ago found that nearly twice as many could name a particular “American Idol” judge than the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice.

There is some good news here in Kentucky. While our voter turnout during mid-term elections trailed the national average through the 1970s and 1980s, it began exceeding it at the turn of this century. During last November’s election, our 44 percent turnout rate was one of the highest in the country and led the South. Tennessee’s rate was 15 points below ours.

A 2011 look at Kentucky’s civic health found some positive trends indicating the strength of our social bonds. We were third among the states, for example, in the percentage of households in which family members eat together for dinner. We were 21st, meanwhile, when measuring the percentage of people who do favors for their neighbors.

Our schools, of course, are on the front line when it comes to civic education. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Department of Education gave the public an opportunity to discuss updated social studies standards, which set the baseline knowledge we hope students learn as they move from kindergarten through high school. The more successful we are in this subject while they are young, the more likely our nation will have the informed citizens we need when they are adults.

With our students in mind, the third week of September is when the National Conference of State Legislatures kicks off its “America’s Legislators Back to School Program.” What began as a single-day event in the late 1990s has since expanded to cover most of the school year.

If you are a teacher or school administrator interested in taking part, I would be glad to meet with your students in the weeks ahead. Scheduling may be difficult during the legislative session, which runs from January through mid-April, but even during that time, there are still opportunities.

These visits, along with field trips that thousands of students make to the Capitol each year, help bring to life the work we do at the state level and the impact our decisions have on them and their families.

This fall, Kentuckians will be making one of the most important decisions affecting the state when they head to the polls on Nov. 3 to vote for governor and the other constitutional officers.

I encourage you to take part, and if you are not registered, there is still time to change that, since the deadline is Oct. 5. To learn about this and more, including your voting location, please visit the state Board of Elections online at http://elect.ky.gov/.

I hope to hear from you soon.


Rep. Mike Denham, a Democrat from Maysville, has represented House District 70 (Bracken, Fleming and Mason counties) since 2001.

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