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Turning “Us” and “Them” into “We” Again: Former UN Ambassador Torsella Discusses American Community at National Constitution Center

March 19, 2015

The Preamble Wall at the entrance of the National Constitution Center's main exhibition, The Story of We the People.

“We the People” are three of the most important words in our political history as Americans – and, arguably, in all of political history. But the American “We” is becoming increasingly fragmented and frayed.

“Recent trends in our political, social and economic lives are straining our sense of being a larger American community, and that's a real threat,” said Ambassador (Ret.) Joseph M. Torsella, distinguished visiting fellow in the Center for Public Policy in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

In a public discussion, entitled “Renewing the American “We”: What We Owe James Wilson,” Torsella will share his thoughts on how we can – and why we must – renew our sense of American community in polarized times and what “forgotten founder” and Pennsylvania native James Wilson has to say about our current situation. The event will take place at the National Constitution Center’s Kirby Auditorium (525 Arch St., Philadelphia) on Wednesday, April 1 at 6:30 p.m. A reception will take place at 5:30 p.m.

Drexel’s President John A. Fry will introduce Torsella, and Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, will join Torsella for a question-and-answer session following the lecture. The lecture is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending should RSVP here. A second lecture on May 13 will take place on Drexel’s University City Campus and will focus on Torsella’s time at the United Nations.

Drawing from his experiences as founding president and CEO of the National Constitution Center and U.S. representative to the United Nations for U.N. management and reform, Torsella will discuss America’s widening divides, from economic inequality to a gridlocked Congress, and will sketch out an ambitious agenda for how we can begin to rebuild and reinvigorate that sense of “We.”

“The good news is this: as Americans, we've always had intense political disagreements,” said Torsella. “We were born, nationally, into an argumentative family: there was a heated debate over the Constitution itself, and serious political disagreements have been part of our history since the George Washington administration. The bad news is that our ability to resolve those conflicts, especially in Washington, has changed: especially in Congress, where there is record polarization, record gridlock and record inability to find common ground.”

Torsella sees Pennsylvanian James Wilson – an often forgotten founder – as the real hero of the Constitutional Convention, and finds answers and optimism for restoring us to one great American community from a surprising source: the American states.

Wilson, who Torsella calls “the Steve Jobs of the Constitutional Convention,” was the ‘inventor’ of popular sovereignty – the idea that it's the people, not some part of government, who have what he called supreme power. He believed that that ultimate authority should reside entirely outside of the government – with “We the People”  – and that a nation could be built on that foundation.

“Because we take his big idea of popular sovereignty for granted – because it's so much a part of our way of life it seems like breathing – it makes it harder for a modern audience to appreciate how radical it was, and therefore how important he was,” Torsella said.

“The work of building America is never finished, and each of us can write the next chapter. I think, if we listen carefully, James Wilson is telling us how.”

Ambassador (Ret.) Joseph M. Torsella
From 2011 through 2013, Torsella served as U.S. representative to the United Nations for U.N. management and reform. President Obama appointed him to the ambassador-level position to advocate for fiscal and administrative responsibility in U.N. operations, which receive more than one-fifth of their funding from the United States. Torsella has extensive experience in public service in Greater Philadelphia. He was founding president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, responsible for development and completion of the $185 million project as well as setting its initial international agenda. He went on to chair the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, which set new accountability standards for high school graduation requirements under his leadership. And in 1992-93, he served as deputy mayor of the City of Philadelphia, leading management reforms that helped close the city’s budget deficit. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a former Rhodes Scholar.

About the National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is the Museum of We the People, America’s Town Hall, and a Headquarters for Civic Education. As the Museum of We the People, the National Constitution Center brings the United States Constitution to life for visitors of all ages and inspires active citizenship by celebrating the American constitutional tradition. The museum features interactive exhibitions, engaging theatrical performances, and original documents of freedom. As the only institution established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis,” the National Constitution Center serves as a Headquarters for Civic Education—offering cutting-edge learning resources including the premier online Interactive Constitution. As America’s Town Hall, the National Constitution Center hosts timely constitutional conversations uniting distinguished leaders, scholars, authors, and journalists from across the political spectrum. For more information, call 215-409-6700 or visit