Thursday, September 14, 2006

A phrase-by-phrase explanation of The Preamble of the Constitution

The Constitution was written by several committees over the summer of 1787, but the committee most responsible for the final form we know today is the Committee of Stile and Arrangement. This committee was tasked with getting all of the articles and clauses agreed to by the convention into a logical order. On Sept. 10, 1787, the committee set to work, and two days later, presented the convention with its final draft.

The newly minted document began with a grand flourish—the preamble. Its words hold the hopes and dreams of the delegates to the convention and a justification for what they had done. The words are familiar to us today, but because of time and context, they are not easy to understand. What follows is an explanation of the individual phrases of the preamble.

We the people of the United States...

The framers were an elite group—among the best and brightest America had to offer at the time. However, they knew that they were trying to forge a nation made up not of an elite but of the common man. Without the approval of the common man, they feared revolution. This first part of the preamble speaks to the common man. It puts into writing the notion that the people were creating this Constitution. It was not handed down by a god or by a king—it was created by the people.

...in order to form a more perfect union...

The framers were dissatisfied with the United States under the Articles of Confederation, but they felt that what they had was the best document they could get up to that time. They strove for something better. The Articles of Confederation had been a grand experiment that had worked well up to a point, but less than ten years into that experiment, flaws were showing. The new United States, under this new Constitution, would be more perfect. Not perfect, but more perfect.

...establish justice...

Injustice, unfairness in laws and in trade, was of great concern to the people in 1787. The people looked forward to a nation with a level playing field, where courts were established with uniformity and where trade within and outside the borders of the country would be fair.

Today, we enjoy a system of justice that is one of the fairest in the world. Only after great struggle can we now say that every citizen has the opportunity for a fair trial and for equal treatment, and even today discrimination still exists. We still strive for justice.

...insure domestic tranquility...

One of the events that caused the convention to be held was the revolt of Massachusetts farmers known as Shays’ Rebellion. The taking up of arms by war veterans revolting against the state government was a shock to the framers. Keeping the peace was on everyone’s mind, and the maintenance of tranquility at home was an important concern. The framers hoped that the new powers given the federal government would prevent future rebellions.

...provide for the common defence...

The new nation was fearful of attack from all sides. No single state was capable of defend itself. With a wary eye on Britain and Spain, the individual states needed each other to survive the harsh international politics of the 18th century.

...promote the general welfare...

This, and the next part of the preamble, are the culmination of everything that came before it—the whole point of having tranquility, justice and defense was to allow every state and every citizen to benefit from what the government could provide. The framers looked forward to the expansion of land holdings, industry and investment and knew that a strong national government would be the beginning of that.

...and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...

Hand in hand with the general welfare, the framers looked forward to the blessings of liberty—something they had all fought for just a decade before. They wanted to create a nation that would resemble something of a paradise for liberty as opposed to the tyranny of a monarchy.

A place where citizens could look forward to being free as opposed to looking out for the interests of a king.

...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The final clause of the preamble is almost anti-climactic, but it is important for a few reasons. First it finishes the ‘‘We, the people” thought, saying what the people are actually doing. It gives a name for the document and it restates the name of the nation. That the Constitution is ‘‘ordained” reminds those reading the preamble of the higher power involved—not just of a single person or a king.

That is it ‘‘established” reminds us that it replaces that which came before—the United States under the Articles of Confederation, a point lost on us today, but quite relevant at the time.

—www.usconstitution.net.