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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."
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The vice president's Senatorial papers—a collection that also includes records in various formats such as recordings and web pages—will be processed, preserved and housed in the UD Library's Special Collections Department, where staff members are nationally known for their expertise in managing political archives.
The donation is expected to encompass more than 2,500 cartons of papers, in addition to 415 gigabytes of electronic records, all of which are currently stored in the National Archives and Records Administration. The papers will be sealed for two years after Biden retires from public office.
The political papers already housed in Special Collections span more than two centuries and include those of federal legislators Michael N. Castle, Thomas R. Carper, Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, John Williams and J. Allen Frear Jr.
UD President Patrick Harker, speaking at Friday's ceremony, thanked Biden "for this extraordinary donation of Senatorial papers, an abundance of materials that will illuminate decades of U.S. policy and diplomacy and the vice president's critical role in its development." The papers, Harker said, will provide students and scholars "an incredible asset for generations to come."
Susan Brynteson, vice provost and May Morris Director of Libraries, called the donation priceless. "The Biden Senatorial papers will document a remarkable personal career but equally will help scholars understand a great deal about those significant decades in the history of Congress, the nation and the world," she said.
Through the generous donations of alumni and friends, the James R. Soles Citizenship Endowment has been established to honor Prof. Soles and his lifelong commitment to public service.
The endowment supports the Soles Undergraduate Citizenship Stipends, which allow political science and international relations majors to take part in special civic participation projects or service internships; the Soles Graduate Fellowships in Political Science, which assists graduate students planning public service careers; and the Soles Professorship in Political Science, which was awarded to Pika in 2008.
The Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship will be sponsored annually by the Department of Political Science and International Relations as the University's official recognition of the approval of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. The lecture will feature a public address by a prominent individual and an opportunity for students receiving support from the Soles Endowment to meet and interact with former students of Prof. Soles, many of whom are now working in public service at the local, state and federal levels.
Prof. Soles joined the UD Department of Political Science and International Relations in 1968 and taught courses specializing in American government and public law until he retired in 2002. He died in October 2010.
Twice a recipient of the University's Excellence in Teaching Award and a winner of the Excellence in Advising Award, he was named UD's first Alumni Distinguished Professor, a position created to recognize outstanding teaching and mentoring. He was known not only for teaching but also for mentoring countless students and for his knowledge of politics, particularly Delaware politics.
"Colleges and universities across the nation strive to create graduates who are lifelong learners," PIka said at the first Soles lecture Friday. "Lifelong learners, it turns out, need lifelong teachers, and Jim Soles was just that sort of committed teacher. He continued to answer the questions of scores of UD grads well after they had left the campus—questions about politics, about careers and about life."
Biden, who was a student at UD before Prof. Soles joined the faculty, spoke of other professors who profoundly affected his own life and career -- in particular, Paul Dolan, Leroy Bennett, David Ingersoll and Yaroslav Bilinksy -- and said Prof. Soles had that kind of impact on a large scale.
"Governors, senators, judges, state legislators all passed through Jim's office," Biden said. "Jim influenced an entire generation of public servants. That's his legacy, a living legacy."
Harker thanked the wide network of friends who have supported the Soles Citizenship Endowment, saying those supporters not only honor Prof. Soles but also extend his commitment to public service to current students. "You're enabling a powerful legacy of devoted civic participation here in Delaware and across this nation—a legacy that surely Jim would have wanted most in the world," Harker said.