For the first time in years, arguments on the fine points of the U.S. Constitution were heard in Catawba County’s historic courtroom.
But the arguments were made not by lawyers trying a case but by students participating in the High School Oratorical Scholarship Program held Saturday, Jan. 7, at the History Museum of Catawba County. The program was sponsored by American Legion Post 48.
Joseph Keller Thomas V, a senior at Maiden High School, placed first in the program.
The program had each student make two speeches on the Constitution, both of which had to address an American’s responsibilities and duties to the government. The first, called the “prepared oration,” had each speak for eight to 10 minutes on the constitutional topic of his or her choice.
The second speech, called the “select topic” oration, required each to actually prepare four three- to five-minute speeches on a list of constitutional topics, one of which was selected at random for all of them to speak on. The topic selected at the program was the 16th Amendment, which allows Congress to levy income taxes.
Drawing on the preamble to the Constitution, Thomas titled his first speech “We Are ‘We the People.’” The address wasn’t merely a retelling of what the preamble said but rather an analysis of its goals and of what it asks Americans to do today.
“The first thing ‘We the People’ try to do is create a better system, a more ‘perfect union,’” Thomas told the audience. “It was the whole point of the Constitution in the first place: to create and run a new, improved government that would change the world. As a modern American people, we must keep that spirit of striving for improvement.”
In an era fraught with political divisions, he pointed out that the preamble counts establishing “domestic tranquility” as one of the Constitution’s goals.
“This is an endeavor that can seem particularly difficult to achieve,” Thomas said in the speech. “After all, if citizens are striving to accomplish the goals we mentioned previously, there are bound to be disagreements on how to do so. I think that perhaps the most important thing we can do as citizens to maintain this peace is really quite simple: have a dialogue.”
Looking toward the end of the preamble, he delved into how Americans can “secure the blessings of Liberty.”
“We can secure liberty by taking advantage of all the opportunities we have in this nation,” he said. “In America, we can vote in elections, speak freely, petition, practice religion, debate issues with others, run and own businesses, get a good education, and seek to better ourselves. My point is this: In a land of opportunity and freedom, in order to be a good citizen, we have to use and appreciate these freedoms as much as we possibly can.”
The speech was the result of months of work, Thomas said in a phone interview.
“To write the speech, I started in November, and I was still making annotations and edits to it right up to the competition,” he said.
His mother was the first person he delivered the speech to, practicing it before her daily in the two weeks running up to the program. But he had quietly tested the speech many times before.
“Once I had my first draft, I probably looked a little weird in class because I would say it to myself and start timing it,” he said.
From the post’s program, Thomas advances to the district competition and from there to the division. If successful there, he has the chance to advance to competitions at the state and national levels.
He earned a $500 scholarship for his work in the Post 48 program. Scholarships also are offered at higher levels of the competition.
Photo: Keller Thomas, left, displays the challenge coin and medal he was presented for placing first at the High School Oratorical Scholarship Program held Saturday, Jan. 7, at the History Museum of Catawba County. The presentation was made by Larry Cline, right, commander of American Legion District 22, who holds the certificate awarded to Thomas. The program was sponsored by American Legion Post 48.