Saturday, May 13, 2017 – Univ. of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education –
Commencement Address by Bob Moses

Thank you Dean Grossman. 

The Preamble:  Say it after me.

“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.”

Who are the Constitutional People in our nation?

Two hundred and thirty years ago in 1787 it was white men who owned property.  Charles Stewart owned 9 year old Somerset. But when he took him to England, a 29 year old Somerset decided to own himself and fled into England’s stream of insurgent runaway slaves.  Captured, he was brought to trial.

On June 22, 1772, the clerk called the case of “James Somerset, a Negro on Habeas Corpus: ” Lord Mansfield, bewigged, the chief justice of the oldest and highest court in England, mounted the bench and delivered his judgment:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political … it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.  Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged. (1)

Lord Mansfield’s decision reverberated across the Atlantic into the 1787 Constitution, which harbored a Somerset clause:  

Article 4, section 2, paragraph 3:

No Person held in Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due. 

When Kingman Brewster died it fell to Sam Chauncey to design his burial site at the Grove Street cemetery where all Presidents of Yale rest.  Sam slung a low black marble wall around the gravesite and chiseled into it a passage that embodied Kingman’s dedication to the “promise of opportunity for all.” 

The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept, in common sense terms it depends on that generosity of spirit that sees the best, not the worst, in the stranger. (2)

The 1787 Constitution afforded constitutional status to two sets of undocumented people: on the one hand, “Constitutional People”: European white men via the Preamble, and on the other hand, “Constitutional Property”: African boys and girls, men and women, via the Somerset clause … Strangers.

Kingman Brewster’s distinction between common sense and legal doctrine parallels Lord Mansfield’s distinction between human rights that flow from our common humanity and legal rights embedded in constitutional law.  The distinction between the thrust of the Preamble and that of the Somerset clause.

Fast forward two centuries from 1787 to 1987 and the Algebra Project which gave birth to the Young People’s Project: Young people in their twenties and teens who aspire to establish a 21st century math literacy standard.  Now reflect that the nation’s most central initial aspirational Young People’s Project was certainly the Somerset insurgents.  Young Africans in their twenties and teens aspiring to change their constitutional status, from that of the Somerset clause to that of the Preamble, from Constitutional Property to Constitutional People.

The Somerset insurgents, those who escaped and those who stayed and struggled, joined Native Americans, Western Pennsylvania Banditti, International smugglers, undocumented Immigrants, and dissident citizens to trouble the Preamble’s waters for three quarters of a century until by 1863 a “Preamble War” fought to expand the reach of “We The People” rang the curtain down on the Somerset clause, Africans as Constitutional Property, and the nation’s first Constitutional Era. 

Exactly one century later, in February 1963, a twenty year old SNCC field secretary, Jimmy Travis, driving from Greenwood to Greenville, caught, in his neck, two of the bullets raining down on the SNCC Chevy.  As Jimmy slumped, I reached over, grabbed the wheel, hit the brakes and steered into the ditch.  Local terrorists had staked out the SNCC voter registration office in Greenwood and grease gunned us on Highway 82.

Somerset-Insurgent-Descendants, African Americans this time around, initiated and sustained a Sit-in Movement, took it into Mississippi with Freedom Rides, then settled via SNCC to organize voter registration across the Black Belt. 

“We the People?” asked Patrick Henry at the Virginia convention to ratify the new Constitution in 1788.

 “ …sir, give me leave to demand, What right had they to say, We, the people? … Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states?  … If the states be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states.” (3)

“We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

A simple declarative sentence: Subject, Verb, Object

Subject:  We The People

Verb:  present-tense and active:  do ordain and establish.

Object: This Constitution for the United States of America.

SNCC field secretaries, 20th century insurgent runaways, put the Preamble in play, big time.  Freedom Riders, bombed in Anniston, were not thinking “We the States”, but “We the People”: 

We the People who ordain and establish this Constitution by this Freedom Ride enact ourselves to be, in defiance of the Judicial, Legislative and Executive branches of the Federal government, in opposition to the powers of the States of Alabama and Mississippi, Constitutional People. 

As Einstein taught us, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” We will have to imagine “We The People” into a Nation that Patrick Henry feared, “one great, consolidated, national government, of the people of all the states:  A Preamble Nation, to compete with the Confederation of States and the domination of Party Politics.

Think about it, the Preamble’s verb, present-tense and active, is a wake up call for 21st Century “We The People,” documented or not, who take this nation as their home to get their act together and enact themselves as public citizens for the common human good.

Let’s say it one more time:

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.

Just Do It!

NOTES: 

  1. Blumrosen & Blumrosen, Slave Nation, pp.1-11
  2. Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test, pp. 153-154
  3. Preamble  [Volume 2, Page 10]  Document 14, Patrick Henry, Virginia Ratifying Convention,
    4 June 1788 Elliot 3: 22-23

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