“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”
I’m sure that many of you had to memorize the preamble to the Constitution as a kid. I know I did. I even remember getting confused between the preamble of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The preamble is one of the few parts of the Constitution that many Americans at least vaguely recognize and remember. This is why it’s highly important that we all understand the context of the preamble’s content so that we can point out when it’s being used to justify government power that it was never written to justify.
Everything comes back to this fundamental question. Why government? You should all know the answer to that by now (if not, take time to read a couple of my theory posts answering this very question). The American government was created, based on the theoretical justifications of liberal philosophers, to protect private property and ensure stability in a world that could so easily devolve into a state of war.
The problem that the founders faced was this: government consists of the same volatile and violent men that needed government to protect humanity from entering into a state of war in the first place.
James Madison says it best: “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
In other words, men are not angels, which is why they need government. However, men in government are also not angels which is why there must be checks and balances, ambition counteracting ambition and ultimately, a Constitution setting to check government itself.
The founders were setting out to do something that had really never been done before. They were attempting to thoughtfully, carefully, and rationally establish a government that would provide a peaceful, safe, and free habitation for their citizens. They knew that in order to do that, they’d need an outside source of law confining and restricting the government’s power by dictating to it exactly what government’s powers were. Anything outside of those assigned Constitutional powers would be arbitrary and arbitrary law is the enemy of a peaceful, safe and free people.
This means that when the founders set out to write the Constitution, they used the preamble to explain the point, the reason for, the Constitution. “Preamble” means: “the introductory part of a statute, which states the reasons and intent of the law.” So, the founders explained the reason and the intent of the Constitution/new government in the preamble. This also means that the preamble says nothing about the federal government’s power or reach. It is merely an introductory statement, an expectant explanation of what the Constitution will hopefully provide for citizens of the US.
Form a More Perfect Union
Ok, this “reason” for the new Constitution is intuitive. The founders were struggling at the time with a very imperfect union of states under the Articles of Confederation. It was a union plagued by violence, turmoil and lawlessness and one that—at least half of the founders—felt could only be perfected by a stronger federal government and a new Constitution.
The founders were experiencing the worst of flawed humanity under the Articles of Confederation. Because the Articles were so weak humanity’s selfish natures were being allowed to run rampant. And so, the preamble states rather simply that the point of this new Constitution is to, hopefully, help establish a more perfect union than the union Americans were experiencing under the Articles. It means nothing more than that and has nothing to do with government’s power or reach.
Naturally, the point of the Constitution was to provide a stable and respected government that did what? Made law. That is the entire point of government. Government makes law to protect the private property of its citizenry because without law, the citizenry runs wild, threatening safety, justice, peace and freedom. John Locke puts it this way: “The only way whereby any one devests himself of his Natural Liberty, and puts on the bonds of Civil Society is by agreeing with other Men to joyn and unite into a Community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure Enjoyment of their Properties, and a greater Security against any that are not of it.”
So, naturally, the hope was that this new government, whose powers would be laid out by the Constitution, would provide a new sense of justice to an otherwise lawless American society.
Insure Domestic Tranquility
Again, Madison (Madison was the key author of the Constitution) feared potential chaos should the Articles of Confederation be allowed to stay in power. He bought into Locke and Hobbes’ theory of flawed, selfish humanity and the need for government to enforce laws in order to keep flawed humans out of a state of war. The domestic anarchy that was troubling America at the time further convinced Madison of the matter. Hence, the new Constitution and new government would hopefully insure domestic tranquility—unlike the Articles of Confederation.
If you haven’t noticed, the preamble is essentially listing out all the reasons for a federal government—-reasons that I’ve been telling y’all all along.
Provide for the Common Defense
Yes. This is definitely one of the most important reasons for our federal government’s existence. Madison and Hamilton knew that the individual states could not and would not provide a unified military capable of protecting the burgeoning country, should the need arise. Much of Article One is devoted to explaining the powers that Congress has to provide for and establish a military.
Promote the General Welfare
This phrase is the most abused and taken out of context, usually to justify gross overstepping of federal power. But in the same vein as I’ve been explaining before, the new Constitution and the new federal government were meant to be for the good of the people. This comes from John Locke who stated that laws ought to be designed for no other end, ultimately, but the good of the people. Naturally, the point of government, based on Locke’s theory and the theories of the American founders, is to protect the private property of the people and promote their good. It would be foolish to think otherwise.
This means that the “general welfare” phrase is not a phrase meant to define the powers of the federal government but rather to define the reasons for creating a stronger federal government confined by a Constitution with the goal of creating laws that are for the good of the people—-within the confines of the powers the Constitution stipulated.
I’ll let Madison explain his take on the “general welfare phrase” himself: “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents. With respect to the words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
So, there you have it. Need I say more? This phrase is perhaps the most used and abused by politicians and government who want to and do expand government’s power today. But their arguments are completely unfounded and taken out of context. If you’d like to read a fantastic article that describes the point and abuse of this phrase read this article on the “general welfare” phrase. One quote from this article summarizes what Madison said perfectly:
“So according to the Father of the Constitution, the General Welfare clause does not give power or permission for federal involvement in the internal affairs of the States. There is no provision in the Constitution for federal power over parks, schools, preserves, police, hospitals, healthcare, or the myriad of other ‘programs’ funding using the ‘general welfare clause’ as a justification for the increase of their power. And to the contrary, once we see the adoption an erroneously expansive interpretation of the general Welfare clause, and see federal involvement in our schools, local governments, parks, preserves, police, roads, and every minute affair of our lives, we will know we have an absurdly out of control federal government.”
Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity
I’m probably sounding like a broken record here, but again, the point of the government and new Constitution was to provide, preserve, promote and protect liberty—-for the generation at the time and all generations to follow. And remember, law equals liberty. Madison knew this and felt that the federal government needed to be strong enough to enforce the laws, but created a Constitution to delegate and confine those powers.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated”. Congress is tasked with making laws to carry out the powers they were Constitutionally given. Those laws better be for the promotion of the general welfare. However, the “general welfare” phrase does not imply that Congress can make any law they want as long as it’s somehow deemed, by Congress, to promote the general welfare. No, it means anything but that.
The preamble is a lovely, simple paragraph that defines the reason for the Constitution and the new government that Constitution confines. Hence, the preamble says… “in order to … [we] do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”. In order to carry out all of the foregoing goals, the people of the U.S. created the Constitution. That is all. Nothing more, nothing less.
Politicians love to take the Constitution out of context to expand their power, even if it means taking the introductory paragraph of the Constitution and redefining as if it is part of the Constitution’s enumerated powers. It is our job as citizens to know and understand the point of each aspect of the Constitution so that we can call out those in power who want to abuse the Constitution. We can also help enlighten those around us who have bought into the propaganda their politicians are feeding them—propaganda like the out-of-context use of the “general welfare” phrase. I hope this little write up helps you all do just that!
The Liberty Belle