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October 13, 2005


“The Constitution is a document that we can work with.”

To the editor:

Professor Derrick Bell is quoted in the Sept. 29 edition of the University Times as saying that the Constitution of the United States is “just a piece of paper, no better than the underlying consensus or lack thereof that it embodies.” He is further quoted as saying that the primary consideration in the adoption of the Constitution was the protection of the wealth and property of the property owners who wrote it. According to the article, his thoughts may be summarized in the statement that “the United States has two constitutions: one written, one unwritten.”

Where Professor Bell sees “two constitutions,” I see two Americas or, rather, two traditions in America that continue to be in conflict to this day. On the one hand, there is the tradition exemplified by the preamble of the Constitution, indicating an intention “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.” It seems to me that this passage must be read in light of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed “certain unalienable Rights…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” taking “happiness” to mean self-actualization in the fullest sense of the term.

This notion of “happiness” does not mean merely property ownership for individual stakeholders — or slave owners, as the case may be — but to create a social environment (as the “general welfare” phrase in the Constitution implies) conducive to “happiness,” as understood by people immersed in political philosophy (as the founders were) otherwise stated as “self-actualization,” or “human development.” Indeed, in the northern colonies, abolition of slavery was very much a part of the rhetoric and promises in the propaganda during the American Revolution.

In contrast to these documents is that other American tradition, that which became the confederacy. It is a tradition that prioritizes individual shareholder interests, even at the expense of the commonwealth. The Confederate Constitution pointedly leaves out any reference to promotion of the “general welfare.” Notably, writers of the confederate tradition prefer John Locke’s philosophical formulation of “life, liberty, and property,” over the formulation ultimately adopted in the Declaration of Independence.

I would make the case that the Constitution is not merely a piece a paper, but a reflection of a set of ideas summarized in the preamble. Of course, as an historic document it can be analyzed in terms of the political compromises involved in its creation, but it is distinguished from other constitutions in that its preamble points to a principle that can be used as a guide to its interpretation (even though Justices Scalia and Thomas do not acknowledge this).

In contrast to other constitutions, because of its preamble, it is not merely a listing of restrictions on individuals or governments as one would have in a lifeless contract. I agree with Professor Bell if, by stating that it is “no better than the underlying consensus or lack thereof that it embodies,” he means that it is yet a living document — just as ideas are alive.

As an African American, I share Professor Bell’s concerns about the failure, in most instances, to apply the principles represented in the Constitution to people of African descent, as well as others (the overwhelming majority of citizens) who are not part of the economic elite in this country. Nonetheless, we have demonstrated time and again that the Constitution is a document that we can work with. The principles that it embodies, particularly in the preamble, are on the side of the progressive impulses of American society. It is up to current and future political activists to make use of the living ideas that it lays down as founding principles. The foundation is there; it is up to us to recognize it, articulate it, defend it and build upon it. It seems to me that this is the real challenge facing us today.

C. Matthew Hawkins

K. Leroy Irvis Teaching Fellow

School of Education

Administrative & Policy Studies

Social and Comparative Analysis in Education


Gas prices are affecting many Pitt employees

To the editor:

This letter is in response to the Sept. 29, 2005, article entitled, “Gas hikes having little effect here.” The options for commuters to the University are without argument varied and positive. They include carpooling, free bicycle registration and parking, and fare-free access to the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s mass transportation. Yet, the rising gas prices are impacting many who work at Pitt.

Bicycling is only an option if the commuter lives close to the Oakland campus. Because of the western Pennsylvania weather, bicycling can only be done in certain months of the year. Mass transit is an opportunity that is also limited to those who live near Oakland or on direct and frequent bus routes. For staff members who live farther in the suburbs or in the surrounding counties, these commuter perks are just not an option. Having to transfer buses two or three times can add up to a two-hour, one-way trip. The limits of the routes and schedules of the Port Authority prevent many from being able to utilize the fare-free bus access. Therefore, a considerable number of people who work at Pitt have only one option, which is to drive to and from work. The national average for a gallon of self-serve regular unleaded gasoline was $1.91 in 2004. Currently it is $2.81 (data from the AAA), which amounts to a 47 percent increase. This has a significant impact on those staff members who received an annual salary increase of 2.5 percent or less in FY05, as last year’s cost of living averaged 3.3 percent.

In closing, all efforts to assist commuters by the University are to be commended. However, it cannot be said that the recent cost surge in fuel has not significantly impacted those who work at Pitt.

Rich Colwell


Staff Association Council

(Editor’s note: The FY05 salary pool was increased by 3 percent. Of that, 1.5 percent was designated as salary maintenance for employees who were performing satisfactorily; 1 percent was for merit, market and equity adjustments. The remaining 0.5 percent was to be centrally allocated to address market and equity imbalances.)


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