On this date in 1788, my home state of South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the new Constitution of the United States of America. Given the (perhaps unusually) contentious nature of our political discourse this election year, it seemed like a good idea to use the Preamble as today’s quote to start the week:
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.
Break it down with me …
- We the People of the United States … — Not we the people of one state, nor we the people of the rest of the world, but we the people of the United States.
- … in Order to form a more perfect Union … — That is, “more perfect” than the previous union under the Articles of Confederation. (Many years ago, my good friend Dr. James Galt-Brown and I discussed writing a book to speculate on what the next more perfect union might be like. Alas, another project that fell by the wayside.)
- … establish Justice … — Not guarantee justice, because justice can never be guaranteed, but establish it, primarily by establishing a system which, if administered well, might produce it more often than not. Justice as an ideal toward which we should strive is laudable, but a different matter from what the Constitution purposed.
- … insure domestic Tranquility … — That is, keep the peace internally and, where possible, protect citizens’ lives from disruptions.
- … provide for the common defence … — Note that this is the only thing the Preamble proposes to provide, and even here the preposition is important because it is less to provide outright than to provide for defense against our enemies. National security remains the paramount responsibility of every national government, but the government relies on the citizens — whether volunteers, as we have in the U.S. today, or conscripts in times of national emergency — to step up and provide it. That seems like a good thing to reflect upon as we approach Memorial Day.
- … promote the general Welfare … — Not provide it, not guarantee it, but promote it: make the citizens’ welfare possible, and where practical remove obstacles to it.
- … secure the Blessings of Liberty … — What are the blessings of liberty? What are the benefits of freedom? Are they the same for everyone, everywhere, at every time? No. The blessings may be success, but they may also be failure; potential good results of liberty also have their negations, potential bad outcomes, because exercising liberty means accepting risk.
- … to ourselves and our Posterity … — Not to the rest of the world, unless they wish to join the union of our several and sovereign states. To ourselves, and the future generations we raise.
The first page of the U.S. Constitution. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Our Constitution was not perfect when it was written, but it was not expected to be; it was only meant to be “more perfect.” Its authors were wise enough to include in it the means to change it should future years prove it unequal to its charge. And what was its charge, its mission? It seems to me it’s right there in the Preamble: not to institute a governmental system for its own sake, but to accomplish certain tasks that together would free its people — “We the People of the United States” — to pursue their own aims, their own dreams, their own potential.
As we begin this week, I hope you have success in pursuing your aims, your dreams, and your potential.by