CRF Blog

Senator Robert C. Byrd (1917–2010)

by Marshall Croddy

As we prepare to celebrate the first Constitution Day after the passing its founder, Senator Robert C. Byrd, it is fitting to pause and remember his contributions to civic and history education in the United States.

In 2004, by inserting language into an appropriations bill, Byrd promulgated the requirement that all federally funded schools educate about the Constitution every September 17. It was also Byrd, who in 2002, secured federal legislation and funding for the Teaching American History program, which supports professional staff development and programming for history teachers around the country.

His long career in the U.S. House and Senate (Byrd was the longest-serving national legislator in our nation’s history) was marked by controversy and accomplishment. Early on he was an ardent member of the Ku Klux Klan and opposed desegregation, positions he later repudiated. With an encyclopedic knowledge of legislative rules, he used them brilliantly to advance his lawmaking agenda and retard those he opposed. A vigorous advocate for his state of West Virginia, he was also known as the master of pork politics, a status he relished. Although not a trained historian, he read and studied voraciously and produced award-winning works on the history of the Senate.

Byrd certainly had his critics, some even calling the Constitution Day legislation itself “unconstitutional” as exceeding legitimate federal power or bad policy for being an “unfunded federal mandate.” But he deserves tribute from the country’s social studies community. As did many of the Founders, Senator Byrd believed that for our democratic republic to survive and thrive, each new generation of its young people must be educated in a deep understanding of the Constitution and our nation’s history.

Senator Robert C. Byrd did something about it.