Friday, April 1, 2016

Constitution Series Part 1: 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.
Thus begins the Constitution of the United States of America. The first few words of the Preamble are some of the most famous words in the history of our country. You remember these words. Every phrase has meaning. It's not like the Declaration of Independence, which rambles on for the first paragraph before getting to the good parts; the Constitution makes it immediately clear who's talking and what they're talking about.

The Constitution isn't a terribly long document. It's very dense, though. Every word said and unsaid speaks volumes. In this series, I intend to go through the Constitution section by section and unpack each one to the best of my ability. I'll be quoting the text directly from the National Archives for accuracy.

Understanding our Constitution is a key part of understanding our country. Every word was carefully considered, starting with the Preamble.


The Preamble of the Constitution (quoted at the beginning of this post) is a single sentence, but it's an extremely dense one. It had to be. At the time it was written, it was not clear that the country would accept this Constitution. The document was replacing an existing form of government laid out in the Articles of Confederation, which were finally ratified by all of the states a mere six years before the Constitutional Convention ripped it apart and decided to start over.

As such, the Preamble isn't merely a statement of intent: it's ripping through the failures of its predecessor. The Articles of Confederation gave the national government very narrow rights to tax the states, no ability to raise an army, and no power to enforce its jurisdiction over interstate disputes.

The Constitution was intended to fix all of that. I don't intend to spend this entire series going line by line like this through the entire Constitution, but I need to hammer this point home, so let's break down this Preamble:

"We the People of the United States," makes it clear that this document was coming into effect through a democratic process. This was not being imposed upon the country by a despot: the People chose this.

" Order to form a more perfect Union..." More perfect than what? More perfect than the union formed under the Articles of Confederation, of course.

"...establish Justice..." The Articles granted the national government judicial powers over interstate disputes and naval issues, but in practice the government had no power to enforce this justice. There was no established judicial branch; it was left to Congress to serve as a court should the need arise, but it was irrelevant since states had no reason to accept their judgments.

" domestic Tranquility..." The Articles didn't allow the national government to raise a single national army. Instead, it was left to the states to arm and train their own militias. Giving the states their own little armies may well have led to interstate violence, and the national government wouldn't have been able to do much about it.

"...provide for the common Defence..." The Articles gave the government no ability to raise an army or keep it together. Congress could approve supplies for the army, but it couldn't actually force suppliers to provide those provisions. As a result, the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War suffered from a lack of men, desertion, and disobedience, and the soldiers who stuck through it all often went hungry.

"...promote the general Welfare..." With no budget and no power, there was little the government could offer the states or its people.

"...and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." Because with the Articles of Confederation, the country probably wouldn't outlive the people who fought for its independence.

" ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." ...To replace that other useless document.

It's true that the Articles of Confederation had a lot of problems. Basically, the best thing the Constitution had going for it was, "at least it's better the Articles." However, I want to give the Articles their due, since though they would have been an awful basis for a long-term government, they did manage to (barely) hold the country together through the turbulent Revolutionary War and through the country's infancy.

That said, it was important that the Constitution make the case for its existence right there in the first sentence. The Constitution needed to be ratified by nine states to come into effect, and there was organized resistance against it. The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists were our nation's first political parties, and their entire purpose was fighting for and against the ratification of the Constitution, respectively.

The Federalists won, of course, but it was not a sure thing. Though the intention is lost on most people now, I think the fact that the Constitution justifies its purpose by directly comparing itself to the Articles of Confederation in the first sentence helped it to succeed.

Anyway, I don't expect every part of this series to spend this much time on a single sentence. I'm anticipating future posts to cover multiple sections at a time, though there are plenty more dense sentences to come. It's worth exploring each one just to demonstrate how much thought was put into this document.

Next time, we'll get into the actual meat of the Constitution with Article I, the part that creates and defines the powers of the legislature. I assure you, it's more interesting than it sounds.

Continue to Part 2: Article I, Sections 1 and 2

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