Friday, July 10, 2009

Exploring the Constitution: The Preamble

"The true key for the construction of everything doubtful in a law is the intention of the law-makers. This is most safely gathered from the words, but may be sought also in extraneous circumstances provided they do not contradict the express words of the law." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME12:59
This is the springboard for a detailed look at our Constitution. It is so vital for all Americans to have a full understanding and grasp of the very foundation of our laws. My goal is to focus in on what the Constitution actually says and decipher its meaning from the perspective of the founding fathers. My objective is to ask the question, why is this in there and what did they mean by it? Basically to find out what does it mean to us today. We start with the Preamble. For those of us that grew up watching "School House Rock!" it is embedded in our minds through a catchy song. The importance of this first paragraph can sometimes go overlooked, however it is an introductory paragraph, a summary of the 5 guidelines to the United States Government. These guidelines are the framework for which the rest of the Constitution is formed.

We the people...
Such a simple phrase in today's language and understanding however then it was so much more important and significant. Our government is all about the will of the people and the preservation of our natural rights. Not the rights and privileges of some King or monarchy. This government is and always will be "of the people, by the people, and for the people" (Abraham Lincoln). It is true that slavery was a prominent component in the United States at this time however it is important to see that the delegates did not exclude anyone in the language of the Preamble. They could have easily written, "We the chosen race" or "We the white people" or "We of European descent." I am not condoning the activities of the slave owning establishment at that time nor do I believe the delegates all believed that slaves had the same rights as whites. What I am suggesting is that the founders, at least key memebers, understood that this language was going to allow for the freedom and liberty of all men regardless of race, religion, or creed. These words, "we the people", became the center piece of the anti-slavery and eventually civil rights movements. In numerous court cases this phrase is the centerpiece of the argument that the language and therefore the intent of the Constitution is to include all men and women to be given equal rights under the law.

in order to form a more perfect Union
The Articles of Confederation, the first government of the United States, was a failure. The national government, which consisted of simply a single congress, had little ability to do anything. They could not require states to pay federal taxes, they could not raise an army, and they could not develop any foreign treaties or relations because the states were doing this without authorization. The states were doing all of these things as if they were autonomous countries, subservient to no one. A better system of government had to be established. That is what is meant by a more perfect Union. The Articles of Confederation was great because it was by the people and cherished states rights. This new Union perseves those same rights of the people and the states however places more control and power in the hands of the central government. In reality this statement was a slogan to pitch the idea of a better government than we've had before. Not different just more perfect than the first.

The following are the 5 purposes of Government:

Establish Justice
With laws being the very foundation of our government they must be defended and enforced. Most important the Constitution, our foundation of law, must be protected from all body politics as well as the people at large. Therefore a key purpose of our government is to establish a judicial system that will protect and defend the Constitution, as well as our individual rights as citizens. Judges must be established to fulfill this obligation. As a judge the "Constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law." - Federalist Paper No. 78. This is the purpose and function for judges appointed to all levels of the Federal and State court system. In addition, one of the biggest fears that people of that day had was a judicial system that was controlled by the political system. Alexander Hamilton agreed that, in Federalist Paper No. 78, "there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislature and executive powers." This quote was actually lifted from the writing of Montesquieu and used as a defense for a third branch of government. The Founding Fathers understood that law is the foundation of a good and stable government, without that a republic will crumble. It can not be left up man along to obey the laws and defend their personal liberties, it must be done through a legal system where rights and fairness are establish and justice is blind to all men.

Insure Domestic Tranquility
To fully understand this concept we must realize the context in which this Constitution was written. Just months before the Constitution Convention convened in the summer of 1787 their was a widespread rebellion in the North, even spreading a little South, known as Shay's Rebellion. One would expect revolutionaries in the United States to support the rebellion as it stood up against oppression, poverty, and government taxation, all monickers of the American Revolution. The reality of the situation was much different. Men like the ardent revolutionary figure Samuel Adams spoke out against the rebellion stating, "Rebellion against a king may be pardoned, or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death." The biggest problem the United States had during the rebellion was an inability of the national government to organize any control over the rebellion. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress had no ability to organize a standing army or require funds from the states to aid in the efforts. This was something that the new national government wanted to remedy. Insuring domestic tranquility means to guarantee a peace among the states and the people at large. The national government needed the ability to protect the people without restraint.

Provide for the Common Defense
"National Defense is one of the cardinal duties of a statesman" (John Adams to James Lloyd, Jan 1815). This is a primary and most prominent responsibility of any government, to defend against foreign invasion. Such an obvious element of a national government yet the U.S. Congress under the Articles of Confederation had no ability to raise a standing army let alone the capabilities to fund it. This changed under the new U.S. Constitution.

Promote the General Welfare
A very controversial phrase and one that has been debated since its creation in 1787. What does promoting general welfare mean and what does it look like? This is a subject will be explored in further detail later however the basic definition of the word welfare I believe answers our initial question. It is the job of the government to promote the general "health, happiness, and prosperity" of the American people. Promoting it however is the term which people get hung up on. The definition of the word suggests encouraging or flourishing the general welfare. This would mean government is responsible for removing any hindrances or obstacles that arrest the growth and development of the general welfare and allowing general welfare to thrive.

Secure the Blessings of Liberty
Liberty is such a foundational objective of the American Revolution that not placing this statement in here as a key element to the Constitution would be ridiculous. One of the greatest symbols of the American Revolution, which still can be seen today is the Liberty Bell. It is a symbol of our freedom and sacrifice. The bell has inscribed on it the importance of how we view Liberty in our country. It says "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." These blessing that the government will secure are spelled out in the articles of the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights. The government is responsible for protecting those freedoms among all citizens.

to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This Constitution is for the people of the United States and every generation thereafter. The Constitution of the United States is such a sacred document for the American people and our way of life that we must be reminded of it from time to time. It is tragic to think that so many citizens have no clue what is actually written in our founding document. My goal is to explore in detail the articles of the Constitution along with its Amendments and discover what the founders intent was when they wrote it. James Wilson, a lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and delegate to the Constitution Convention stated "The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it."

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