Delivered by then Senator Barack Obama at the National Constitution Center across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA on 18 March 2008, during his first presidential campaign.
Let me begin by thanking Harris Wofford for his contributions to this country in so many different ways. He exemplifies what we mean by the word citizen, and so we are very grateful to him for all the work he has done, and I’m thankful for the gracious and thoughtful introduction.
“We the people… in order to form a more perfect union….”
Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across the ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed, but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citi