Last week I said I was going to read the U.S. Constitution properly, and share the experience here. I hope that doesn’t sound like a drag, because the Constitution is one of the most important pieces of literature/legislation ever written, and it’s actually a short and pretty straightforward document. Not only that, but many of us feel like it’s under attack these days (others would argue that’s been the case for years) so I think we all owe it to ourselves to find out what we’re talking about. We should all be Constitutional scholars. Today’s homework is easy – the Preamble.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.
See? Easy. Every one in America has heard these words before, even if they haven’t read the Constitution. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution has been quoted in speeches, movies, and classrooms so many times it sounds familiar. So we don’t think about it too much.
But if you cut out all the subordinate clauses, it’s really only one simple sentence.
We the People of the United States … establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Simple but profound. The people of the United States establish the Constitution. Of course the reality was a bunch of old, rich white guys speaking for everyone else – and that is still the reality far too often today – but they were speaking for everyone. That was pretty revolutionary (pardon the pun) back then. It was the first time since the Icelandic Allthing was established in 1000 that establishing a government was a task completed by the people, rather than a matter of invasion or inheritance.
But of course the subordinate clauses were not just fluff – they’re there to make the purpose of such a government explicit. What is the purpose of the United States?
- to form a more perfect Union,
- establish Justice,
- insure domestic Tranquility,
- provide for the common defence,
- promote the general Welfare, and
- secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
Ah, founding fathers, you pain me with your random capitalization. But that sure is a list that people could argue about for 300 years.
To form a more perfect union
Yeah, philosophers have only been arguing about the definition of “perfect” for a few millennia. For most practical purposes, though, we can just remember that the colonies at the time were actually separate – they had been established at different times by different groups of people (even though the 13 that seeded the U.S. were all under British rule at the time). So without reading too much into it, “a more perfect union” sounds like the Constitution was intended as sort of prenuptial agreement for colonies.
Hey, we’re all down with that, right? Of course, determining what is just in a particular situation isn’t always as cut and dried as we’d like. Nowadays, we’re inclined to look to the Constitution for guidance in a sticky situation – another good reason to read it.
Insure domestic tranquility
They knew full well that the Declaration of Independence would lead to war with England. Nice that they were thinking ahead to a time when the war was won and they would have an actual country to run, and they wanted to guarantee that it was a peaceful one. They meant for the Constitution to provide post-war guidance, and it still does. But please don’t use their spelling. Today, “ensure” means “guarantee” and “insure” means “a just-in-case-policy that pays out cash in the event of whatever you’re insured against.” Which the Constitution obviously does not, can not do. Maybe it’s a silly grammar point, but when a document is old enough that the actual words don’t always quite mean what they used to, I think it’s a good idea to go in with eyes open and maybe not take a Biblical-literalist approach to your reading.
Provide for the common defense
Again with the archaic spelling – defense has an “s” in it now, instead of a “c.” But otherwise, providing for the common defense seems like a pretty straightforward goal. Especially for a bunch of upstarts on the brink of war with England, but today, too. Safety in numbers, right?
Promote the general welfare
Hello! Sorry to get partisan, but Republicans, are you reading this? Promote the general welfare. General – that’s not the welfare of military generals, they’re talking about the general public, here. The government of the United States was established explicitly for the welfare of the people whom it would govern. Not for shareholders or PACs or donors. The general welfare. If the people are suffering, the government is not doing its job.
Secure the blessings of liberty
Not to get snarky, but they weren’t looking for God’s blessings, they wanted liberty. I’m cool with that. But I’m sure we could get a nice discussion going on what liberty really means, and just what blessings it confers.
I hope we do. I would love to hear from readers if anything in the Preamble stands out for you. If I’ve made a historical or grammatical mistake, or you disagree with my reading of the text, I would like you to (politely) let me know that, too. Because I’m pretty sure that one of the blessings of liberty is being able to have and defend your own opinion about your own government.
Ready to move on to the articles?