Back To CourseAmerican Government: Help and Review
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In 1787, the mood of the country was foul. Six years after the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and four years after the Treaty of Paris, which had given the United States its independence, it was becoming clear that not all was working as the newly independent nation had envisioned. Most of the problem, seemingly, could be traced to the government - not to the people serving in it or representing the 13 states, but instead, the government itself. There seemed to be something wrong with the design of the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitution, and its Preamble, as we know it today was not drafted during the Revolutionary War. Instead, the Founding Fathers drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1776. The articles were meant to establish the country as a confederation of sovereign states. However, the articles-based government had several structural flaws that didn't become fully apparent until the war itself was in full swing. Chief among these issues was the power given to individual states.
Under the articles, the federal government was kept particularly weak. Most notably, the Congress had no powers of taxation; it could only request money from the states. These requests were often denied - a quick read of George Washington's letters to Congress demonstrates how frustrating this was for the Continental Army during wartime. Moreover, the Congress couldn't regulate commerce between the states, which meant that each state controlled its own trade policies and debts. In the Congress itself, each state had one vote, which roughly equalized the power of large and small states, much to the annoyance of larger states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, and any attempt to change or amend the Articles required a unanimous vote of all 13 states, a practical impossibility.
Why was the government designed this way? It's easy to understand in light of what the Revolution was all about - the threat of a powerful, even tyrannical central power, represented in the British crown. Americans were petrified of a strong central government and signed the Articles of Confederation to avoid the perils of such a powerful institution. But, after the war ended, many began to see that a weakened government could present its own problems.
In 1786, a Massachusetts army officer-turned-farmer named Daniel Shays led a short rebellion against the state government, over what he saw as unfair tax policies. Though the rebellion was quickly dispersed and there was little violence, the fear that state governments were close to collapse and that the articles government would be unable to help them spurred many American leaders to action. The following spring in Philadelphia, delegates from 12 states - Rhode Island did not attend - gathered together, technically to revise the articles. What they produced was a brand new form of government - new to the nation, and new to the world.
The Preamble was written in the last days of the Convention by the Committee of Style: Alexander Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, Rufus King, James Madison, and Gouverneur Morris. The wording was not discussed by the body of delegates and seemed to be largely an afterthought. In fact, the original language did not refer to the 'United States,' but instead to the various states, which was much more common in governmental documents and declarations. The change to 'We the People' was a practical one since the Constitution included a ratification process; after nine states accepted the new government, it would go into effect, whether or not the remaining four ratified.
The Preamble says:
'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.'
By itself, the Preamble is little more than one sentence that repeats the phrase 'United States,' but it has come to serve several major purposes.
From a legal standpoint, the Constitution has been subject to multiple interpretations, reinterpretations, and amendments since its creation. In particular, many of the phrases used by the Founding Fathers are vague enough to invite speculation and multiple definitions; for instance, when the Constitution gives Congress the power to 'regulate commerce,' what exactly does that mean?
The value of the Preamble, then, is that it provides an overall view of the role and power of government, in the Founders' perspective, to help refine these interpretations. Because the Preamble is so short, courts do not use it to settle specific legal debates or to infer that particular rights or powers belong to the states or the federal government. But the phrases used in the Preamble - 'to promote the general welfare,' for instance, help the courts determine the scope of certain powers, like that over 'commerce.'
The phrase 'we the people' has also come to have a special meaning under the Constitution. It usually is interpreted to refer to citizens but also has come to mean anyone who lives under the sovereignty and authority of the United States. Also, since ultimately, the Constitution is an agreement - between the governed (the 'people') and the government created by the document - the phrase 'we the people' is often interpreted to mean that the people are sovereign or in control over the government. This was a radical concept in its day but is now part of the essential American view of self-government.
This phrase is interpreted by many constitutional historians as a deliberate shift from the Confederation of the Articles government, a loose alliance between 13 roughly equal and independent states, to a 'union,' a more powerful and cohesive framework in which states give up some of their independence in exchange for the protection of a more durable central government.
Finally, the words chosen for the Preamble signify what the Founding Fathers believed to be the essential purpose of any rightful government:
This final phrase indicates the most enthusiastic hope of the Founding Fathers - that their new government would, unlike the articles, be able to endure.
The Preamble is the introduction to the U.S. Constitution.
'We the people' are the first 3 words of the U.S Constitution; they have been constantly re-interpreted since its origination.
Once finished with the lesson on the Preamble to the Constitution, take a little time to:
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Back To CourseAmerican Government: Help and Review
20 chapters | 303 lessons
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