In the summer of 1997, Dr. Judith Rodin announced that Penn would join in Mayor Ed Rendell's proposal to create a National Constitution Center as a "museum of ideas," with scholarly linkages and public outreach programs in keeping with the University's new thrust in the study of American and comparative democratic and legal systems (see "Six Academic Priorities," Almanac November 5, 1996). This month in Washington, Penn Historian Richard Beeman joined the Mayor and the Center's President Joseph Torsella to help make the case for federal funding before a subcommittee chaired by Senator Arlen Specter.

The Case for Building a National Constitution Center

Testimony of Dr. Richard R. Beeman before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, September 2, 1998

My name is Richard Beeman. I am a Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. I also am honored to serve as the National Constitution Center's first Senior Visiting Scholar.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you this morning on the proposed new National Constitution Center. Let me say at the outset, I and my colleagues at Penn are grateful for the vision you have shown in seeking to secure federal funding to build the Constitution Center. Your leadership on this and other matters of critical importance to the University of Pennsylvania and the nation--in biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health and on undergraduate and graduate student financial assistance--is greatly appreciated.

Mr. Chairman, we Americans are blessed to live under the protection of the United States Constitution. It has allowed an extraordinary measure of individual liberty for the citizens of our nation. At the same time, the Constitution has also provided our nation a remarkable measure of public order and stability.

Such is our confidence in the durability of the government created by the Founding Fathers that it is easy to take the blessings of liberty and of stable government for granted.

The Founding Fathers themselves, as they prepared to leave Philadelphia after the adjournment of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, were wisely more modest about their accomplishments. And they were far less sanguine about the prospects for the new government.

On September 17, the final day of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, who also was the founder of the University of Pennsylvania, rose to give what would be the last major speech of his life. Ever the optimist, even at the age of 81, he nevertheless gave what was for him a remarkably restrained assessment of the government he and his colleagues had labored to create.

"When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom," he noted, "you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views." Franklin thought it impossible to expect a "perfect production" from such a gathering, but he believed that the Constitution they had just drafted, "with all its faults," was better than any alternative that was likely to emerge. Nearly all of the delegates harbored objections to a document that they believed to be still imperfect, but, persuaded by Franklin's logic, they put aside their misgivings and affixed their signatures to it.

More important, following adoption of the Constitution, Franklin and his fellow delegates worked tirelessly to make certain that America's experiment in liberty was a success. They, and their successors--men like John Marshall, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln--realized that the federal edifice so recently created was not a self-actuating or a self-sustaining one. It could only be sustained, they knew, by renewed dedication and constant commitment to the principles of American government.

Our Founding Fathers understood that our system of democratic government came with no guarantees. Not in 1787, or today. They knew that the new republic would require active, informed citizen involvement to preserve, protect, and defend it.

This, Mr. Chairman, as you know, is the basic, if daunting, mission of the National Constitution Center. To make sure that the citizens of our nation live up to their obligation to understand and to nurture the Constitution and our system of government.

The National Constitution Center is designed to be a living national museum devoted to advancing public understanding of the principles, rights, and responsibilities of American citizenship, past and present.

The United States currently does not have a facility that performs this critical function at a time when we know that the public's understanding of the American experiment in democratic government has unfortunately eroded. We cannot afford the luxury of ignorance or apathy today, any more than we could at any other critical time in the nation's past.

The University of Pennsylvania is proud, therefore, to commit resources to the establishment of a National Constitution Center. It is a commitment that includes our excellent History Department and Law School, which together are working to lay a foundation for renewed scholarship and public discussion about the origins and purpose of American government. Dean Gary Hack of our Graduate School of Fine Arts is helping to design the museum, and the faculty of Penn's Graduate School of Education are actively engaged in the creation and dissemination of teaching materials on the Constitution for use by students in our nation's schools. Penn has also worked with the Center in setting up its new, user-friendly web site, which we will continue to support and refine.

These examples of Penn's support for the National Constitution Center are an outgrowth of our commitment, a commitment dating back to the Revolutionary Era, to educate an informed citizenry--a citizenry aware, not only of its rights protected by our Constitution, but also of its responsibility to keep America's experiment in liberty a viable and vibrant one.

As an historian of the Revolution and the Constitution, who has taught in Philadelphia for the past thirty years, I am aware of how the historic buildings on Independence Mall and its environs--Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the American Philosophical Society, Carpenters Hall--provide an exciting opportunity to teach Americans, as well as tens of thousands of foreign visitors, about these critical moments in our nation's past.

The National Park Service is doing an outstanding job of both preserving Philadelphia's physical heritage and in interpreting the events that transpired in those historic buildings. The National Constitution Center's new mission, on the other hand, will be to build intellectual bridges between that important eighteenth century history and the twenty-first century-so that we might better appreciate where we have come from and where the nation might be headed. Together, the synergy created by these two complementary missions will make the educational experience available on Independence Mall a very powerful one.

Mr. Chairman, allow me to conclude on a personal note. I serve on a National Advisory Board of Scholars which helps guide the Center's public outreach efforts. That board includes scholars from all over the country. It is an extraordinarily distinguished one, including several Pulitzer Prize winners. Each of us is privileged to teach a few hundred students each year in our respective universities about the Constitution and the birth of democracy.

Our experience as teachers has been enormously rewarding, but our "ambition" (a word I use in its public-spirited eighteenth century sense) is to extend teaching--and learning--well beyond our classrooms. If the ambitions of the National Constitution Center are realized, we will be able to reach millions of American citizens to inform them--as we do the students in our classrooms-about the priceless heritage Franklin and the other Framers bequeathed us.


Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 3, September 15, 1998