Taking a 21st century look at the challenges faced by the framers of the U.S. Constitution 225 years ago might offer a solution to the current political divide in the nation's capital, U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper told an audience at the University of Delaware on Friday, Sept. 14.
A UD alumnus, Carper delivered the James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship in the Gore Recital Hall of the Roselle Center for the Arts.
The senator was introduced by Joseph Pika, James R. Soles Professor of Political Science and International Relations.
Pika noted that seeing the words citizenship and the Constitution in the lecture's title would have pleased the late Dr. Soles, the University's first Alumni Distinguished Professor.
"Jim understood that democracy requires constant renewal. You just don't wind it up, set it in motion and expect it to work. It requires new generations of people willing to fight for electoral office, volunteer for public roles, worry about community issues, and to vote," Pika said. "We are fortunate to have a speaker today who knew Jim Soles and who has had many firsthand experiences in understanding the many complexities of citizenship and Constitution."
Having served the First State as its treasurer, U.S. Representative, governor and U.S. senator since 2000, Carper first became involved in the political process in 1974, when he served as the treasurer of the James Soles for Congress Committee.
Carper asked the standing room only audience to stand and join in reciting the words from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Recalling his close relationship with his political adviser and mentor, Carper noted that Soles understood that the words of the Constitution are only words on a piece of paper unless they are embraced by informed citizenry committed never to stop communicating and searching for compromises that move the country forward.
"Part of Jim's magic in the classroom was his ability to make what students studied in his courses both real and relevant in their lives," Carper said. "Jim involved thousands of students like no other professor they'd ever seen or heard. And, as a result, they understood not only how to become better citizens, but the need to do so."
In fast-forwarding to the current political climate, Carper said that today the U.S. House of Representatives won't bring up legislation passed months ago by the Senate, and that meaningful cybersecurity legislation goes nowhere in either the House or Senate.
Perhaps a way out of such political standoffs might be found through a process initiated in California that offers hope for renewing the spirit of communication and compromise.
"They've changed the way that congressional districts are drawn by empowering a citizens panel to draw district lines that look and feel more like those of days gone by," Carper said. "Equally interesting is a change in the state's primary laws that provides for open primaries in which voters of one party can vote if they wish in the primary of another party."
Notwithstanding criticism about the open-primary approach, Carper noted that other states are looking at what is happening in the Golden State and may begin exploring ideas of their own.
Such problems faced by Americans today are nowhere near as daunting as the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers over two centuries ago in Philadelphia, Carper said.
Issues then included slavery, the rights of women in a new democracy, justification for three branches of government and the question of amending the Constitution once it was adopted.
"The Constitution that Delaware ratified on Dec. 7, 1787, was not perfect. We've spent the past 225 years trying to make it more so. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren will make it better still as informed and enlightened citizens," Carper said. "The kind that Jim Soles helped to educate and send off into the world from Newark, Del., as he sought to ensure that America comes closer to living up to its true promise, a promise that's embodied in the Constitution whose birthday we celebrate today."
About the Soles Lecture
The Soles Lecture honors the late Dr. James R. Soles, who was a member of the University's political science and international relations faculty for more than 34 years.
The annual lecture also marks the anniversary of the day that the U.S. Constitution was signed in Philadelphia, Sept. 17, 1787.
Vice President Joe Biden, also a UD alumnus, delivered the inaugural Soles Lecture in 2011.
Dr. Soles received the University's Excellence in Teaching Award twice and its Excellence in Advising Award, as well as the University's Medal of Distinction.
Dr. Soles, who died Oct. 29, 2010, received many awards and recognitions in his distinguished career, but he is still best remembered for his personal dedication to teaching and to his students.