Pauline Maier, an American history scholar, speaks on the Bill of Rights during Constitution Day at CU Denver

In a presidential election year where the Constitution is oft-invoked in political rhetoric and wielded as partisan artillery, the history and complexity of this iconic document are as relevant as ever.

Against this flag-waving backdrop, Constitution Day unfurled in the North Classroom today. This the third annual commemoration at the Auraria Campus, jointly sponsored by the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Community College of Denver.

According to federal law, institutions receiving federal funds are required to hold an annual event to commemorate the Constitution. Giving the introductory remarks was Rebecca Hunt, PhD, a senior instructor of history at CU Denver.

“We’ve brought different scholars to campus,” added CU Denver’s Michael Berry, PhD, assistant professor of political science. “Last year we looked at the Constitution and the Civil War. We’ve had different themes, but the focus on the Constitution has been consistent.”

This year the organizing committee brought in Pauline Maier, PhD, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a historian on the Bill of Rights and Revolutionary America, and Michael Nelson, PhD, a political scientist specializing in presidential politics and senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Maier got the program started with a 90-minute talk about the origins of the U.S. Bill of Rights.

She explained how its origins date to England’s Convention Parliament of 1688. She also gave insights into nuances of the declaration of rights: “We forget this at our peril that the most important statement of rights for 19th century Americans, particularly those who opposed slavery, was not what we call the Bill of Rights, but the Declaration of Independence.”

She noted that the rights, which began as the first eight to 10 amendments to the Constitution, gained prominence under the term “Bill of Rights” in the 1920s. In that decade, racist issues flared, women’s rights took the forefront, and post-World War I legislatures were prone to infringe on free speech. “It was a new era for civil rights in America,” Maier said.

More than 100 students participated in this year’s Constitution Day. They enjoyed a sub-sandwich lunch before returning to the Auditorium 1130 for Nelson’s talk.

“I think it’s great to have opportunities for students, faculty and staff to hear these top scholars in American history and presidential politics,” Berry said. “We’re really fortunate to have scholars of this caliber come speak on campus.”

Maier, who has written books about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, pointed out how the Constitutions’ framers knew they were not crafting a one-size-fits-all document. “They knew that constitutions had to be adjusted to the times, the circumstances and the people who were governed,” she said. “They would probably have been absolutely amazed that the handful of ‘milk and water amendments’ that the first federal Congress pulled together … became as important as they were.”

She concluded with this thought: “That the jerry-built legal foundation of rights in the United States has proven a hard sell in a rights-conscious world should not surprise anybody who is conscious of their strange and complicated history.”

(Photo: Pauline Maier, a leading scholar in early American history, speaks about the Bill of Rights during Constitution Day in North Classroom Sept. 14.)

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