Constitution 3: “We the People”

The preamble of the Constitution is important, and understanding its deeper implications helps to understand why the body of the document took the form that it did. The Preamble reads:

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.

We the People of the United States

We the People. As the preamble begins, we remember a point previously made: Social compacts, constitutions, and the like rest upon a deeper foundation than the document itself. Compacts and constitutions follow pre-existing relationships and consequent identity. The Constitution begins with “We the People,” a recognition that a “people” already exist. In preceding weeks, we saw that the colonies that formed the United States had from the beginning a unique sense of identity. A significant number of citizens were from Europe, especially Great Britain. They spoke a common language. They were inheritors of a common social and political heritage, stretching from Biblical Times, to Greece and Rome, to Middle Ages Christendom, to the Enlightenment Era in which they lived and of which they were a product.

The thirteen members of the Articles of Confederation were conscious that they were forging a new nation different from those of the Europe. They were, as Edmund Burke noted, instinctively opposed to any form of servitude and for the extension of freedom. The states did not want to recreate in America the monarchies and nobility of Europe. They commonly resisted attempts by the British government to treat them in an unfair manner. They had fought as comrades in arms a long and bitter war, suffering near defeat before unexpected victory. They had a common series of legends from Lexington and Concord to Valley Forge to Yorktown.

The governmental institutions of the several states were similar despite their differences. They were all some form of representative democracy. They all subscribed to some version of English Common Law, and supported a government restrained by the rule of law. They had formed the United States of America through the vehicle of the Articles of Confederation, and they wanted that union to endure. They did not want a state-established religion.

Those that came to Philadelphia with minor adjustments in the Articles of Confederation in mind and those who came feeling that a dramatic adjustment needed to be made, both came with an identity as a part of “We the People of the United States.” They were one “people” and willing to make the compromises and adjustments required to protect their existing common political arrangements from failure.

We the People Forming a Different Form of Union. There is more to the “We the People” than a recognition that a people existed before the Constitution. The founders were forming a government that Lincoln would call “By the People, of the People, and for the People.” [1] In the beginning, many delegates assumed that the revisions to the Articles of Confederation would be approved not by the people, but by the sovereign states themselves.

The Convention ultimately disagreed with this strategy as they proposed to create a form of government with two sovereignties: the National Government, supreme in its spheres of operation, and the Sovereign States, sovereign within their retained spheres of responsibility. This system of dual sovereignty was an important innovation, and points towards and understanding that a nation dedicated to freedom would allow local governments, which by their nature are closer to the people a large measure of freedom in adapting to changing situations and in adopting innovative solutions to problems. At the same time, the national government would be supreme within the areas of responsibility given to it under the Constitution.

In Order to Form a “More Perfect” Union

As indicated last week, by May of 1787, there was a consensus that the union of the states created by the Articles of Confederation was seriously flawed. They had a union, but it needed to be improved. Notice that the founders did not propose that the union they were creating would be “perfect” It could be made “more perfect.” Those that met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 were aware that there were weaknesses in the Constitution they proposed. As indicated last week, slavery was an issue and many delegates disliked the Connecticut Compromise as finally adopted. It was necessary to enable the nation to move forward, but it allowed to continue an institution that many found immoral which was destined to be eliminated on both religious and moral grounds. [2]

The founders provided for an amendment process because of their understanding that the Constitution as proposed would need change to the extent that provisions were subsequently found unworkable. In point of fact, the “Bill of Rights” was added as part of the initial price of adopting the Constitution, so that by the time the constitution was adopted a “perfection” that many found lacking was supplied by amendment. In the history of the Constitution, it has been amended twenty-seven times in the process of the gradual “perfection” of the form of government the founders established.

Here we see the humility and pragmatism of the founders. They knew that the document was not perfect. It would have to be changed from time to time in a lawful process. Their idea was that a process of amendment and change enabled the Constitution to endure and adapt, and it also provided a way for change in the fundamental form of our government without violence and conflict.

The Goal of the Constitution

The founders had a goal stretching back far into the history of political philosophy. As far back as the Greeks and Romans, from Augustine to the end of the Middle Ages, it was recognized that governments had a goal: the “Common Good,” as that term was understood from time to time. The goal of a government was often phrased as either “the common good” or “peace” (such as in Augustine), which often amounts to the same thing. In the case of the Preamble, there is a recognition that there cannot be peace without justice. The kind of constant disturbance that had occurred under the Articles of Confederation was contrary to the ideal of social peace, as there had been rebellions (Shay’s Rebellion, for example), states engaging in economic warfare against one another, and other activities contrary to the attainment of the common good or social peace. [3]

Shay’s Rebellion, and the obvious foreign threats to the new nation, created a concern about the ability of the thirteen states to defend either themselves or the nation as a whole. In particular the inability of the Articles of Confederation to provide for a strong navy to protect commerce and a military establishment sufficient to deter foreign schemes to control one or more of the colonies was on the mind of the Convention in seeking to “provide for the Common Defense.” The continued economic warfare involving states attempting to secure economic advantage, was contrary to the ideal of the United States as what we would call a “free trade zone,” which most business interests regarded as necessary to promote the General Welfare of the states.

Taken as a whole, the opinion of the framers was that the Constitution as drafted would provide for a government more capable of securing the peace and prosperity, i.e., the “Common Good” or “General Welfare,” as they phrased it, of the several states. In my view, one of the signs of the deterioration of the existence of a notion of a “common good” in our society is the kind of “politics as war” that we have endured for many years. Those in power have lost the notion of the General Welfare or Common Good (not just the good of their party or group) and Social Peace as the end of society, which cannot be created without a concern for justice for everyone so far as possible. In particular, the utopian visions of many in our society are pursued with the mistaken notion that Social Peace will be the result when their views are adopted and those they see as retrograde removed permanently from political life. This is completely antithetic to a stable democracy and any lasting social peace.

Secure the Blessings of Liberty for Ourselves and our Posterity

Finally, the goal of the founders went beyond the immediate. Their desire was to see that the liberty and form of government that they had fought so hard to create was secured for future generations as well as for themselves. After the adoption of the Constitution, and continuing to this day, there was and are different ways of thinking about the legitimacy of the Constitution. The views of John Adams and of Thomas Jefferson often frame the discussion.

On the one hand, Jefferson thought that each generation had to reaffirm the fundamental validity of the Constitution. He was famously sympathetic to periodic revolutions. Other thoughtful statesmen, like John Adams felt that future generations owed a debt to the founders that was “paid” so to speak by their preservation and protection of the form of government we enjoy. This leads at some point to the idea of a living constitution, an ideal often criticized unfairly by conservatives.

At some point in the future, I intend to look at Jefferson’s notion of “Generational Sovereignty.” For now, I want to focus on the word “Posterity.” Obviously when a person is concerned about their “posterity” he or she attempts to leave them an inheritance. Once the person dies, he or she cannot manage that inheritance. Either the heirs will manage it or it will be managed by a trustee for their benefit. Most of the time, if wealth is inherited, it will have to be managed, and the assets that constitute that wealth will differ in character and make up from that immediately inherited. Changes will be made to adapt to changing circumstances.

It seems to me that this is the best analogy to guide Americans in maintaining our freedoms and the democratic republican form of government bequeathed to us by the founders. We are like heirs, and our political leaders are like trustees. Changes in our government must be made because society changes and will always change. Adaptations must be made.  In the future, I want to visit about the ways in which population growth, industrialization, emergence of large corporations, the growth of technology, an “information society, and the complexities of modern bureaucratic government have changed the way we live and for better and worse have put new stresses on our society and upon our form of government.

Against those who propose radical change in the character of the French Revolution and the modern revolutions of Europe and Asia, I think what is called for is good and wise stewardship of the government and institutions we have inherited. This involves both continuity and change. This continuity and change are the way in which, as heirs of wise parents, we manage the inheritance we have so fortunately received.

Copyright 2021, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

[2] The clause that counted slaves as only partial citizens was flawed from the beginning. It was necessary in order to entice the southern states to agree to the new form of government. The result of this compromise, however, was a continuing discord that would only be eliminated by the Civil War. The fact was that many of the delegates were opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds. They did not desire to do anything that would continue the institution of slavery. I will deal with this aspect of the constitution in more detail when discussing the civil war amendments.

[3] Shays’ Rebellion was an armed rebellion in 1786-7 centered in the Western Massachusetts area led by a Revolutionary War veteran in response to an ongoing debt crisis and in opposition to the state government’s efforts to collect taxes both on individuals and their trades. Those who supported a stronger federal government, such as George Washington, felt that the rebellion was symptomatic of the need for a stronger national government. This event as much as any other galvanized those who felt a stronger national government was needed to action, resulting in the calling of the Constitutional Convention

 

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