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 of the United States of America.
The Preamble to the US Constitution lays out the goals the Framers wanted to accomplish when they replaced the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation (Alexander Hamilton called them “imbecilic”) with the new government they created in 1787. Our book Fault Lines in the Constitution describes problems with the structures of that government. But, in this month of Thanksgiving, we want to share our gratitude to the Framers for their aspirations. Let’s look at it phrase by phrase.
We the people. These three words comprised a radical statement at the time. The Framers were thumbing their nose not only at King George III, whom they had defeated in 1783, but also at the whole idea of a hereditary monarchy. No longer would kings or queens rule the people. As set out in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we’d do it ourselves, thank you very much. Alas, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 assumed that “We the people” were just like them—free, adult, white men who owned property or paid taxes. It was unthinkable to most of them that women, members of native nations, or black people could play a role in governing themselves. Still, no one was excluded. “The people” was open to expansion and ever-greater inclusiveness.
Fortunately, thanks in part to the remainder of the Preamble and the Constitution that follows it, we have expanded our understanding of who counts as people.
The United States. The Preamble we’re familiar with was actually the second draft, penned by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. The first draft opened, “We the People of the States of…” and proceeded to list each of the thirteen state. That’s because when the delegates convened the convention in May, each represented his home state, which he considered to be a nearly independent entity. By September, these men realized they were forming an overarching government for one whole country, and they needed to get that message across to its citizens. So, Morris replaced the individual state names with “the United States.” Some people at state ratifying conventions were outraged by what Patrick Henry accurately predicted would be a “consolidated” government. Nevertheless, “the United States” stayed. Tussles continue between state governments and the federal government over such issues as gun control and family planning.
Still, we pledge allegiance to the United States of America.
Form a more perfect union. The condition of the country from 1783 to 1787 was hardly ideal. Congress didn’t have the power to tax individual citizens so it didn’t have funds to run a government. Under the Articles, the president had no power; there were no federal courts; and Congress consisted mostly of guys yelling at each other about states’ rights. The Framers saw that they needed to perfect a union of these states.
If the original states had not agreed to ratify the Constitution and form a single union, there might well have been two or even three separate countries. Who knows how many countries, vying with each other, there would be by now? (We blogged about this in “A Less-Than-Perfect Union?”)
Establish justice. The Framers disagreed on which policies were just or unjust. The key issue over which they fought was slavery, the remnants of which continue to pervade the Constitution. (We blogged about this in “A Covenant with Death” and in “Slavery and the Constitution.”) On other issues, states were at loggerheads when a person in one state sued someone in another. Whose decision was final? To answer such questions, the Framers created a system of federal courts.
Through this arrangement of trial and appeals courts—as well as through clamor for legislation and constitutional amendments—we strive toward justice.
Insure domestic tranquility. In the 1780s, states confronted not only foreign enemies but also domestic ones—each other. They squabbled over their boundaries, over who should pay to fight off native nations, whether to maintain slavery, and other disputes. The Framers yearned for a national government that could settle these conflicts and insure peace in the homeland.
Although we are much at odds with each other these days, states are not taking up arms against each other. And, we generally abide by the decisions of the federal courts and the laws passed by Congress. The notion of domestic tranquility as an ideal for the country also helps promote kindness, generosity, and civility at all levels of society from local neighborhoods to national policy-makers.
Provide for the common defence. Once the soldiers who had fought the Revolutionary War packed up and went home, the country had no national army or navy. Without a common government, there was no way to organize, lead, or pay for one. The only armed services were local and state militias. With enemies at our borders and abroad, we needed a defense force.
The American military is now the largest and strongest in the world and has been extended to include treaties and alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Promote the general welfare. Without a system of roads and bridges and without a common arrangement for taxes, interstate travelers and businesses in early America suffered. The Framers wanted to overcome these nuisances.
With this as a goal, our country established free trade among the states and an infrastructure network, including roads and public transportation, that ties us together.
Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. This might be the phrase that is most widely misunderstood, at least in terms of what the Framers intended. “Liberty” to them did not mean license for everyone to do whatever they wanted. On the contrary, liberty meant freedom from rule by a leader not chosen by we-the-people. Self-government through our representatives, elected by the people, would ensure our ongoing liberty. But there were great pressures to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. By 1791, it was amended to include individual liberties, such as freedom of speech and religion and the right to bear arms, as a potential safeguard against a tyrannical government.
As a nation, we value our many liberties.
In Fault Lines in the Constitution, we grade our Constitution in more detail on how well it meets the goals laid out in the Preamble. We encourage you to do the same. Meanwhile, we remain grateful for the Framers’ noble aspirations and hope you will help perfect the union.