“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”
My daughter came to me the other day and proudly informed me that she could recite the preamble to the Constitution. At her school, all 7th graders are required to memorize it as part of their studies of our nation’s governing document. As she proudly stood in our laundry room and spoke the words written over 220 years ago that laid out the principles on which our fledgling nation would govern itself, I was struck by how applicable the foundational concepts prescribed by our founders are today. Perhaps there is no better way to understand how far we have divorced ourselves from a fidelity to our founding precepts, than by examining the 52 words that were agreed upon at the conclusion of that summer in Philadelphia as the best description of the goals that were contained within the document that they were to offer to the people of a fledgling nation for their approval.
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” Although the founders realized that the population of the country was certainly diverse, and that as Madison would express in Federalist 10, be ever sub-divided into factions of varying interests, at their core, the people of the United States shared a common set of beliefs and values that served as the foundation for a single nation. The Constitution and its included articles was the written expression of this unified vision.
In expressing the desire to form “a more perfect union” the founders were actually expressing two distinct desires. The first, of course, was to produce a governmental structure that would address the deficiencies of the existing Articles of Confederation. The second objective is perhaps even more important. The founder’s realized that government was a flawed instrument and did not have as its central purpose the delivery of a “perfect” societal order. Its role was to facilitate the nation’s growth through the combined efforts and achievements of its citizens through the zealous protection of the rights of each of its individual members.
“Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense” In this new Republic, the role of government was to be clearly proscribed and limited. In Articles 1, 2 and 3, the founders established three co-equal branches of government with each designed to fulfill a specific role in the process of making, executing and interpreting the law. The goal of this system was to ensure that all laws were applied equally, and not selectively, to all members of society. The latter two objectives are in a sense related, as they reflect the primary role of any government, that being to ensure the security of its citizenry. Domestic incidents, such as Shay’s Rebellion, had demonstrated that internally the purpose of the government was to protect the governed from the dangers of mob rule, while simultaneously guarding against hostile incursions from foreign nations.
“Promote the general welfare” In our contemporary society, this is perhaps the most controversial phrase in the entire document. For some, the interpretation of this phrase provides the rationale for our growing welfare state. However, In viewing its intention in the context of the time of it’s writing, such an interpretation is aggressive at best. Having fought against the capricious rule of a centralized government, the founder’s were acutely aware of the coercive powers of government and established a structure that they believed would guard against just such abuses. A review of both the arguments of the Anti-Federalists, and the associated responses to them of the Federalists, clearly demonstrate a fear of the emergence of despotism in the form an all powerful central government that rules by appealing to the lowest elements of human nature. Perhaps no better articulation of this danger may be found in the words of DeToqueville.
“Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
The intentions of the founders, as expressed in this phrase, are clear and to argue otherwise is the equivalent of a child’s desire to change the rules of a game that it does not like.
“and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” The is no better demonstration of the classical liberalism of the authors, and their vision for the country, both then and in the future, than this clause. The purpose of the government was to ensure the freedom of the individual through its own limitations on its power. It was to guard these freedoms and not coopt or usurp them under the guise of beneficence. In the Republic that they envisioned, the primacy of the individual was not to be undermined.
As my daughter finished her recitation I was struck by the hope that she may live to see a return to these principals. As an entrepreneur, I am hopeful that my kids’, and their peers, education on the Constitution spawns future generations of entrepreneurs. I will feel blessed if my children, with that knowledge, choose the same path as their father. Perhaps, through the efforts of people like the educators at her school, we may raise a new generation that does not view our government as our provider, but rather, demand that it once again fulfill its obligation to be the protector of the freedoms charged to it by the authors of the Constitution. In closing this brief soliloquy on the current state of the relationship between our government and its citizens, and the need for a return to a greater fidelity to the vision of our nation’s founders, I will defer to the explanation offered by Madison in Federalist 10 as to the purpose of the newly written Constitution:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”.