Too many political leaders and some of our fellow Coloradans oppose teaching our children the true history of our country, about how we began, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. Happy to raise the U.S. Constitution as a shield, they claim to understand what our “founding fathers” originally intended.
But what if they knew the author, Gouverneur Morris, of the Constitution’s first words, “We the People,” was an outspoken abolitionist? Would teaching that historical fact trigger the book banners, school board protesters and angry social media mobs who frame their actions with the false premise of protecting our children?
What the book banners and curriculum rewriters also miss — or perhaps it’s what triggers them — is that “our children” today are the most diverse ever. The National Center for Education Statistics lists today’s students as 45% white, 28% Latino, 15% Black, 5% Asian, and 1% American Indian/Alaska Native. They are the future of America. They are the future “We.”
For starters, Gouverneur was his given name, not his title. He was an American statesman, a Founding Father of the United States, and a signatory to the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. He wrote the Preamble to the United States Constitution and has been called the “Penman of the Constitution.” He was also the most outspoken abolitionist in Independence Hall in the Summer of 1787. Perhaps that last fact is why he is cast in the category of a Forgotten Founding Father?
When Morris arrived at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he had spoken passionately and worked practically against slavery in America for years. In 1777 he proposed an amendment to the New York state Constitution outlawing slavery and stating, “every being that breathes the air of this state shall enjoy the privileges of a freeman.” In 1785, he helped form the Manumission Society of NY, which worked to abolish state slavery laws, and founded a school for freed slaves.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he condemned slavery as being “in defiance of one of the most sacred laws of humanity” because it “tears” people away from their “dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages.”
He attacked the hypocrisy of the 3/5ths Compromise. That’s the clause that allowed, until the slavery faction lost the Civil War, slaveholding states to count each slave as 3/5 of a person for Congressional reapportionment. He asked: “Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”
The Preamble Project: We the People is a free Constitution Day program that was developed to give today’s students an opportunity to build a shared understanding of what it means to be American through an exploration of the Preamble to our Constitution.
It begins with the two-minute video Who Wrote We the People? providing an opportunity for this generation of diverse students to explore the question “Who in today’s America are ‘We the People?”
A word of advice to those who do use an “originalist” lens, an understanding of what was in the minds of America’s founders in 1787, to interpret our history or our Constitution: A true “originalist” lens of that time period would show the complexity — the idealism and racism, the pragmatism and the cynicism — of competing and dissenting views at the Constitutional Convention. With that understanding our children can grow up to be voting citizens with a belief that every American in our multicultural America is an equal member of We the People.
On Sept. 18, schools and parents across Colorado have the opportunity to celebrate Constitution Day by exploring and discussing the words written by the “Penman of the Constitution,” Gouverneur Morris. It is a perfect time to teach the next generation that no matter our race, gender, sexual orientation or political ideology, We the People means all of us, the American people “who breathe the air” freely.
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