The United States Constitution Explained: 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.
Pretty much everyone in the United States learned these words in grade school or high school, but what do they really mean?
Today we will break down each phrase that makes up the Preamble to our nation's bedrock legal document to better put ourselves in the Framers' mindset as we start a deep dive series on the Constitution of the United States.
But what even is a preamble anyway?
To start, let's talk about what a preamble even is. For those of us who are not lawyers, this may be a completely unfamiliar term that we only associate with the Constitution. According to Meriam-Webster, the definition of a preamble is "an introductory statement, especially the introductory part of a constitution or statute that usually states the reasons for and intent of the law." Based on this definition, we can gather that the Framers included the Preamble to help set the context for the rest of the document. When we look at the nation's history and the events surrounding the Constitution's writing, we know that the founding fathers cared a great deal about context. Three of the founding fathers, under a pseudonym I share, wrote eighty-five essays to defend the Constitution and add context.
We the People
Of all of the ways they could have begun the Constitution, including a narrative like the Declaration of Independence, or something about the Continental Congress, or "We the delegates of the Constitutional Convention," they chose "We the people."
Because the founders realized that the power of free government comes solely from the people. They believed that there was no divinely established, "right to rule" that monarchies typically believed in. They believed that people had rights that preexist government and that they willingly give up a small portion of their liberty in exchange for safety and organization through the government.
Of the United States
In 1787 when the Constitution was written, there already was a Union known as the United States formed by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. It bound the states into a union, but one that didn't really work. Having only a congress and any major decision needing the approval of three-fourths of the states limited the government's power significantly. The motion to allow the national government to collect taxes failed twice to reach the needed support that the Constitutional Convention was held.
In Order to form a more perfect Union
When they went for a "round two" version of government, they knew it would not be perfect either. Most of the founding fathers were Christians, and the idea that mankind is fallen and has a sinful nature was consistently interwoven into the Constitution. They knew that as imperfect beings, there was no way they could create a perfect governmental system. Knowing that, they wanted to attempt to make a country that was as close to perfect as possible by steering into those imperfections instead of away from them and pitting self-interested humans against each other. By doing so, they allowed for impasses to naturally happen, and ensured the sinful nature of one man cannot overrun the entire system. (yes, that gridlock in DC that makes the government slow to respond and drives us all crazy was designed that way to protect us from ourselves and has been that way since 1789)
Georgian Britain's criminal justice system was very different from what everyone is familiar with from courtroom dramas today. Small criminal cases were handled without a jury and tried by magistrates, who, in most cases, had only a basic understanding of the law. More severe crimes were sent to the Crown courts that did have a jury. Still, the jury was one of the elite class that cared little for the prisoners, were often held without any representation for the defendant, and if all of that wasn't bad enough, they were done almost entirely in Latin. Most cases lasted only a few minutes. The Framers wanted to develop a system such that this would not be the case. As you can see in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the founders thought it is better than ten guilty men to go free than one innocent man's rights be deprived.
Insure domestic Tranquility
In short, the founders wanted to make sure that people felt safe in their homes. Unlike the British, who forced colonists to have troops stay in their homes, the framers believed that people had rights to when and how the government can intrude into their homes. Also, they believed that the government should have the power to protect the nation's borders and put down riots and insurrections in the country that threatened citizens' safety. This was a careful balance to strike and was one of the primary reasons that many states would not have ratified the Constitution without the Bill of Rights to fully clarify these restrictions of the government.
Provide for the common defence
First off, tangent alert, can we conclude that the English language and the way it has changed over the centuries is really stupid at times? I know this is a first-world problem, but the red spell check lines that had to stay while writing this really bugged me. Ok, back to the Preamble.
The Articles of Confederation made it almost impossible for the nation to defend itself. It relied heavily on state militias and state militaries regulated by congress but funded by the states. It was a mess. Without central command or funding, states would need to persuade other states to send troops to their aid. For a lot of people in the country, this was not going to last long term. The Articles so loosely joined the states that a minor skirmish from the British after the revolution (like the war of 1812) would cause the states to surely break up. In this new government they were creating, they wanted to make sure that they could effectively centralize military power to be organized effectively to defend every part of the new country.
Promote the General Welfare
As we have discussed above, the Articles of Confederation left the national government with no real power in relation to the states. And states were limited in their power to their own borders, so policy disputes and state disagreements had no set mediator. Promoting the general welfare is meant at a national level to handle issues not best addressed by any individual state—nationwide interstate infrastructure, tariffs, and other issues that the states cannot legislate for themselves.
And Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
When the fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence did so, they knew that they were signing their own warrant for execution if they did not win the war. They fought, bled, and died for the right of self-government under fair laws. When the Articles of Confederation failed in their purpose of creating a national government that would join the states into a cohesive union, the founders were desperate to make sure all of their hard work and sacrifices would be worth it. They wanted to create a government strong enough to preserve the union and protect what they had fought for; however, they wanted one sufficiently restrained to maintain liberty as time went on and not become a tyranny as they had left in Great Britain.
Do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America
I considered leaving off this phrase from the analysis because it seems very straightforward. However, I really think the wrap up to the Preamble is essential to discuss because of their specific words. Specifically, I want to focus on the word ordain. Ordain is a word typically used in legal documents to order or decree something officially, and its other meaning is to confer holy orders on like making someone a priest. I believe they chose this word intentionally because of this double meaning. The founders believed heavily in the separation of Church and state in that they don't want the government interfering in the Church and people's religious freedom. As for the Church playing a role in the government, it is clear that they infused much of the original documents with Judeo-Christian principles and values. For example, in the Declaration of Independence they wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
As you can see, they specifically capitalize the word Creator in the way that Christians and Jews capitalize any word describing God because it is a proper noun. Knowing this, I believe that they hoped to "ordain" the new Constitution with a holy mission of preserving the rights and liberties they believed were endowed to the citizens by their Creator, whether or not the citizens believed in the same God as them or not. This does not mean a theocratic form of government. They wanted those elected into positions to act for their constituents' best interests and personal values, no matter their religion.