Today, we'll just focus on the Preamble. I'm sure many of you, like me, had to memorize this in junior high history class and recite it to the teacher in order to earn a good grade for this part of the curriculum (thank you, Mr. Marson!). Even if we had little understanding of words like "posterity", it was a nice way to introduce at least the basic idea behind the Constitution. For refresher purposes:
"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."
So, what does this little paragraph mean? Let's look at it, a little bit at a time:
"We the People of the United States" - this is who is making it happen. Not a king or emperor, not an already-established government or parliament. Not some upper-class, out-of touch group of aristocrats. We, the people, as represented by those chosen to participate in the Constitutional Convention.
"In order to form a more perfect Union" - notice, it's not "to form a perfect union", merely "a more perfect union", on other words, better than what we have now. The original mission of the convention was to update and modify the Articles of Confederation. They knew that the Articles (like the Articles of Association before it) were inadequate for the maintenance of the fledgling nation. Ultimately, of course, they scrapped that idea and wrote an entirely new plan.
"Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" - they are laying out what they believe are the fundamental responsibilities of a national, or federal, government. They see its role as limited and general, with very few specific things it can or should do. Certainly, each of these items can be interpreted to mean much larger things. For example, FDR's New Deal or LBJ's Great Society can be seen, perhaps, as falling under the "promote the general welfare" clause, though I suspect the Founders did not envision that phrase to necessarily mean an enormous "welfare state". Likewise, "ensure domestic tranquility" can be seen by some as authorizing an overbearing police state, if condition warrant, though thankfully, such people are rare. And "justice" means many things to many people - is it "economic justice" (a popular notion these days, as it was during the Depression), and how does one define economic justice? Or is it a more general notion of fair play and equal protection under the law? Finally, what does "secure the blessings of liberty" actually mean? Is it a combination of all the previous phrases, or is it something more esoteric?
"For ourselves and our posterity" - the Founders were looking forward. Their hope, though they could not be sure of it at the time, was that the new nation would survive and prosper long after they were gone. Thankfully, they were right!
"Do ordain and establish this Constitution for The United States of America" - again, emphasizing the name of this new nation and declaring it in fact established as the Constitution is ratified.
Coming up - the Articles of the Constitution. Stay tuned.