On March 18, 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama began an oration that Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic called a “searing, nuanced, gut-wrenching, loyal, and deeply, deeply Christian speech” and “the most honest speech on race in America in my adult lifetime.”
“‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,’” Obama began, quoting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “Two hundred 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.”
Standing in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama argued that, despite America’s original sin, the abomination of slavery, he was optimistic that future generations would continue to make progress toward “a more perfect union,” precisely because our nation was founded on the principles enacted in the Constitution in 1789.
Obama’s speech is relevant amid today’s fierce debate as to what to teach young Americans about the nation’s origin story and true birthdate. Like Obama, some posit that it is 1789, the year the Constitution went into effect, establishing the American form of government. Most Americans believe it was 1776, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the enumeration of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.