From the moment the U.S Constitution was written, its meaning has been fiercely debated, but in the end it provides the principles and mechanisms for political compromise and the path to progress, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told an audience at the University of Delaware on Friday, Sept. 16.
"The true accomplishment of our founders was not that they spoke with one voice" but that they brought together many voices to forge the Constitution, he said. "That is the genius of the document."
Biden, a U.S. Senator from Delaware for 36 years until his election as vice president in 2008, and a 1965 graduate of UD, was on campus to donate his Senatorial papers to the University Library and to deliver the inaugural James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship. The lecture, to be given annually in celebration of national Constitution Day, is named in honor of the late Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus Jim Soles.
The audience filled the 650-seat Mitchell Hall, while other students, faculty and friends watched on television screens around campus. Guests included Biden's wife, Jill Biden, who earned bachelor's and doctoral degrees at UD; other members of the vice president's family; family, friends and many former students of Prof. Soles; and a host of dignitaries, including U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.
"The Constitution doesn't provide certainty," Biden said, adding that the founders knew they couldn't create a document that would settle all questions that might ever arise. "But they could be settled by the institutions to which the Constitution gave rise and power. … They built a framework for government that allowed many disparate voices to be heard."
Political disagreements and, eventually, compromises have moved the nation forward throughout its history, Biden said, with the Constitution holding out the promise that every voice in a diverse society can be heard and blended together—"not always in harmony, but in unity." If Americans trust the process of government, he said, today's generation will successfully get through "this temporary period of political paralysis."
At the conclusion of the lecture, Biden urged students in the audience and others to get involved in public service: "Politics is not a dirty word. Politics is the only way a community can govern itself and resolve its differences without the sword."
In introducing Biden, Joseph Pika, who is the University's James R. Soles Professor of Political Science and International Relations, said Prof. Soles was "a mentor for scores of UD alumni, inspired hundreds more and was the most memorable teacher that thousands of students ever encountered." He described Biden as "unusually well-qualified to discuss both the Constitution and citizenship," citing his years of public service and longtime membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ralph Begleiter, Rosenberg Professor of Communication and director of UD's Center for Political Communication, also welcomed Biden to the ceremony and thanked him for donating his Senatorial papers. He said the University expects someday to have "an institute built around the policy themes to which Joe Biden has devoted his lifetime of public service—constitutional law and equal justice, political participation and responsible citizenship, economic opportunity and prosperity, effective government, and foreign policy and international relations."