Posted by: Ed Darrell | February 6, 2008

Preamble to the Constitution

This is the Preamble* to the Constitution of the United States:

We the people of the United States, in order 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

You may want to see how I analyze the Preamble, below the fold.


* “Preamble” is a fancy word meaning “fore-walk,” or words before the main text.

Phrase by phrase, I look at it like this: We the people of the United States Unique at the time, this phrase lays out the hierarchy of power in the nation. The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land (see Article VI), but the people are the creators of the Constitution and superior to it. All power in the Constitution, James Madison said, is power that is delegated from the people to the federal government.

This contrasted starkly with almost every other government in existence in 1787 (the year the Preamble was written); in other nations, it was understood that any rights the people had were granted from the government, or from the monarch. Only in the U.S. was there a written document which said the government itself was beholden to the people.

. . . in order to form a more perfect union — Remember that the 13 American colonies had struggled under the Articles of Confederation, which formed a weak and imperfect union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were superior to the national government, and the national government could only beg for states to allocate money to it, since there was no power to lay and collect taxes. While the union was imperfect, it did unite the colonies well enough to win the war (though the Articles weren’t approved until just seven months prior to Cornwallis’ surrender). So this phrase announces the hope and belief that the Constitution will provide better government, “a more perfect union.”

. . . establish justice — The Declaration of Independence listed 28 grievances the colonists had against King George III and England. (Go read them if you haven’t read them lately.) Several of the complaints involved instances where the King’s minions had denied justice to the colonist, by keeping legal proceedings secret, by holding trials far from the homes of the accused, by conducting “fishing expedition” searches of homes and businesses, by holding accused people without trial for months or years at a time, and so on. This phrase recalls those injustices, and promises not to commit them in the new government.

. . . insure domestic tranquility — American colonists were well aware of the violent disputes in England between people of differing faiths, between noblemen of different areas, and against people who disagreed with the Crown. There had already been disputes between some colonies. This Constitution provided peaceful means to resolve disputes, and protected the differing faiths of everyone, including non-believers. In short, it was to provide “domestic tranquility.” Incidentally, “domestic” is derived from the Latin “domos,” which means home.

. . . provide for the common defense — This refers to the Constiution’s plan of having the federal government defend the colonies collectively, or defend the colonies “in common.” Such an arrangement unites the colonies to defend each other, providing another point of unity, but it also frees the colonies from having to raise their own armies.

. . . promote the general welfare — Congress and the courts argue that this clause gives Congress the right to legislate on almost any matter that can be determined to improve the welfare of the nation. It provides a good poetic counterpoint for “provide for the common defense.” I wonder whether the author of the Preamble considered what use it might be put to?

. . . and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity — What are the blessings of liberty? Freedom to worship, freedom to get educated, freedom to do business, freedom to speak out, freedom to travel — all the freedoms Americans enjoy can be counted in the “blessings of liberty.” The colonists intended to secure these blessings for themselves, and to all their descendants, or posterity (meaning, those who would come after them in time).

. . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America — “Ordain” is often a religious word. Priests and pastors are ordained, as are church elders. Prior to the U.S. Constitution, kings were ordained to rule, usually by a church, implying a divine right for the king to do so. In this case, however, it is the American people who ordain the Constitution. This is a secular act, and it reaches back once again to the Mayflower Compact and its establishment of a government by the consent of the governed, a principle also enshrined in the Declaration of Indpendence, which noted that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

At the time of its writing, the Preamble was unique in international law, providing the purpose for the law in ringing language. It sets a high standard for government action which we strive to live up to every day.

What do you think about this little point of history?

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