Analysis of the US Constitution: Preamble
The United States Constitution is the founding legal document of the modern-day United States. Going into effect on March 4, 1789, the US Constitution serves as the supreme law of the land for the United States, overruling other laws that may be passed by Congress.
This article focuses on the Preamble, which is the first section of the document. While only one sentence in length, it is packed with meaning and sets the objectives of the remainder of the document. While the rest of the Constitution gives specifics of how the government will operate, the Preamble dictates the goals of those rules, giving context to what the Founding Fathers were aiming to accomplish, allowing Americans today to continue building towards those goals.
The full text of the Preamble is included below. It's easy to see that it simply states several reasons why the Constitution is even being written, and therefore what the role would be for the then-new United States government. In other words, the Preamble is a summary of the entire purpose of the United States federal government. We will further analyze it one role at a time.
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.
Form a More Perfect Union
The first listed goal is to "form a more perfect union." The union referred to here is the union of the former British colonies that became the United States of America. But that definition is too simple; it doesn't state anything beyond the fact that those colonies were joining together in one nation. There are plenty more questions to ask:
- What is a nation?
- Why are they joining?
- What about the current situation needed to be "more perfect"?
- What about the current situation prevented becoming "more perfect"? In other words, what marginal benefit will the Constitution provide that staying part of Britain couldn't?
A union is a broader concept that includes individual entities (in this case, states) joining together, but also includes the shared characteristics, identities, and goals amongst those individuals that define the identity of the union. For example, any given company has a mission statement, target product market, uniquely innovative products, and employees that all believe in and strive towards improving all aspects of the company, inside and out. Those deeper aspects are what truly define the company, not the names of the employees. It is the deeper aspects of the union that define it and help us understand this brief but meaningful statement. Think of this in context of the failings of the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence and remember it as we look at the rest of the goals.
The second goal is less abstract and more specific: establish justice. The United States has long identified itself as a nation of laws, one in which the rule of law is applied. This is opposed to a nation in which corruption or bribery is present, or one where privilege, status, or other personal traits offer preferential treatment in the legal system.
The message here is that the Constitution would dictate, at a general level, how the legal system of the United States would effectively punish those guilty of criminal offenses while preserving the liberty of those who are innocent. After all, the Constitution is a legal document. We'll see more details about limitations on trials, which levels of government are responsible for enforcing different laws, and restrictions on punishments later in the Constitution.
Insure Domestic Tranquility
A simpler rewording of this would be to "keep the public peace and safety." This is a seemingly simple, obvious, and expected goal, but think again, and it's actually abstract in that there is no explanation of how to do it or what specifically it means, and the rest of the document doesn't specify these either. Here's an example that, even if you think has a clear answer, many others might have nuanced and unique solutions.
There's a protest that requires streets to be closed and will create a lot of noise. The protesters legally acquire all permits, but there is guaranteed disruption to citizens that live near the protest's path in the form of increased traffic, loud noises, inconvenience, and possible escalation from counter-protesters. How specifically does the local government insure the rights of the protesters will keeping the nearby public space as tranquil and peaceful as it usually is?
You see how the government must balance a wide range of rights, desires, and goals, all of which are respectable and valid. There is no clear cut answer, and democracies are always full of different opinions on how to solve them. But regardless of the approach, it is the government's job to make laws that balance them all.
There's a couple other sides to this goal which are more obvious. One is to manage disputes between states. States have a lot of independent power under the Constitution, and the Founders knew that would inevitably lead to two or more states bickering over something. The federal government, being, in a way, the manager or parent of the states, would ensure two states couldn't fight each other, militarily or otherwise, by resolving disputes with federal law that would supersede any state law. (Fast fact: Federal law trumping state law is known as the supremacy clause.)
The other aspect is rebellion. The Founders themselves were rebelling against Britain, so they certainly knew it was a possibility that United States citizens might try to do it, too. (The Whiskey Rebellion occurred only two years after the ratification of the Constitution.) Nonetheless, violent rebellion is not the ideal option, and the Founders had implored the British crown to change before resorting to military revolution. To that end, the US Constitution tasks the federal government with suppressing violent uprisings and rebellion. After all, in a democratic system as the United States, the entire government leadership could, in theory, be replaced the next election, changing the country's direction without changing the country itself. That isn't possible in monarchies like Great Britain was then. In other words, the Founders deemed violent rebellion unnecessary, and therefore suppressible, in a democratic system were peaceful alternatives existed to achieve the same ends.
Provide for the Common Defense
This is possibly the most well-known of the federal government's responsibilities: defend against foreign intervention. But it's phrased differently and more generally as "common defense," which means a whole range of things, military and otherwise. It also doesn't require the government to maintain a military, but just to have one expressly when common defense by a military is needed.
In fact, the US Constitution does not at any point mandate the federal government have a standing military. The standard practice was to call up militiamen, which were ordinary men (at the time it really was just men, no women like today), to fight in the country's defense when military action was needed. The United States does today have a standing military, and funds it over $600 billion every year, but that is a practice only started after World War II. And at the time, President Eisenhower warned about the incredible dangers of the "military industrial complex" that arises when militaries are too big, powerful, and long-standing. Interestingly though, the US Constitution does, later on, instruct the federal government to maintain a navy. But nonetheless, we should understand that "provide for the common defense" does not translate into "maintain a standing army, even in peacetime," but instead just includes being responsible for organizing and applying military defense when the country is at threat.
There's more to the common defense than just war, though, especially today. With the explosion of technology and its ever-greater influence in our lives and society, common defense can also mean preventing foreign nations from hacking our energy grid or election systems. It can mean monitoring spy activity or even doing spy activity of its own. Defense for our nation comes in many forms.
One important difference between this and establishing justice is the domain. Justice is applied to people breaking laws within the United States, while common defense refers to protecting those within the United States from external forces.
Promote the General Welfare
This is the most abstract and unspecific of the roles. Reading it should prompt a few questions:
- What exactly is meant by promote? Does that mean active management of the general welfare, or just setting up an environment that seems principally correct, or something else?
- What exactly is contained in the term welfare? In other words, what level of wellbeing is to be promoted by the government?
- How does the adjective "general" affect the definition of welfare? Does it mean only wellbeing related to interactions between citizens?
These questions are never directly answered. In fact, debates around the size and role of the federal government in protecting the social wellbeing of its citizens is a pivotal issue even today. Think about issues like welfare spending (Medicaid, SNAP, etcetera) and healthcare reform.
While there isn't a direct, obvious direction here set by the Founders, this goal nonetheless instills a general idea of the government having some level of responsibility to the social wellbeing of its citizens. Whether this means just actions like building roads or all the way to the like of funding everyone's healthcare isn't clear from this statement. We can only interpret this in the greater context of the rest of the Constitution and the actions of the first US presidents, many of whom were Founders. But since many of the current debates on this front in the United States today were not even relevant at the time (e.g. health insurance was not a thing in the 18th century), there will always be present-day applications of this goal for which the Founders didn't give clear answers.
Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity
The last goal is rather simple yet elegantly worded. In simpler terms, it means, "preserve the amazingness of liberty for everyone and future generations." The United States set out to be a nation founded on liberty and justice, and these identifying, founding, and inalienable rights must be preserved in order for the United States to remain great. Each generation has a responsibility to remember the identity of the country and maintain the country's longevity, leaving it the way it was found. A government active in remembering its purpose and identity is part of that effort.
Which stated purpose is the most important?
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