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The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

The ambitious job description set by the American people.
Story Series
Simply Civics

The opening words of our constitution — the Preamble — is really a job description by the American people that lays out the goals and responsibilities of the newly formed government. The Preamble as presented states the following:

“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.”

As the American people state in the Preamble, the government and those charged with running the government advanced an ambitious and demanding job description for the new nation, but it is not terribly specific about how best to implement this vision of the future. Nevertheless, the American people and the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution clearly wanted this new nation to remain unified, based on a system of justice, guaranteeing peace, security and good fortune, and most of all developed around the principle of liberty.

Yet, despite the importance of the Preamble to the future direction of our country, there have been too many examples where the job description set by the American people failed to be implemented or at least only partially achieved. For example, our “perfect Union” was severely threatened by the bloody Civil War between North and South from 1861-1865, in large part over slavery and states’ rights. And then after the war, there remained animosity between North and South along with widespread discrimination against the freed slaves. Today, there are serious political divisions over public policy and national values. We now live in a time when our nation is split between so-called Blue States (liberal and Democratic) and Red States (conservative and Republican) on issues such as abortion, gun control, LGBTQ rights, racial equity, and the role of the government. There are now real concerns that the goal of a “perfect Union” will not be easily attainable as this political polarization is so intense and deep that there appears to be little chance of bringing the nation together any time soon.

Then there is establishing “Justice and insuring domestic Tranquility.” Justice and Tranquility are those governing goals that are not easily defined and too often elusive. Many in the minority communities of our country point to disturbing instances in which justice and tranquility have been denied or delayed. There are now regular struggles, particularly within the African American community, to deal with issues such as police brutality, unfair and inefficient judicial procedures, gang violence, and systemic racism — societal and institutional obstacles to create equitable guarantees that justice will be served and tranquility achieved. The recognized symbol of justice in our system of government is the blindfolded women balancing the scales of justice, suggesting every American will enjoy the right to be treated equally, receive the opportunity to have his or her complaint heard in a court of law without prejudice, and if convicted to be punished in a manner that is within the established parameters of the law. As is often stated about our governing values — no one is above the law and everyone is subject to a system of judicial fairness. If indeed these are the values that govern our system of justice, then domestic Tranquility will follow. But if our justice system is broken or prejudicial, then true tranquility cannot be achieved.

“Providing for the common defence and promoting the general Welfare” are usually discussed in terms of how the government collects and distributes our tax money. This country has a national budget in the trillions of dollars with the bulk of the expenditures directed to the military and to a range of social programs. Governing in our country has become a fierce battle over how best to cut the public policy pie with the key question of who deserves the biggest cut of the fiscal pie and where to best distribute the cut of the pie. Historically, the military has often received the largest share of the tax distribution pie as the Congress and Presidents have determined that the various branches of the armed forces need to have the latest in equipment and support — airplanes, warships, tanks, satellites, cybersecurity and personnel training — in order to maintain our status as the world’s most powerful country. It is in the budget area of “general Welfare” that the policy debate is the most contested as the national debate centers around how much money should be spent on taking care of the needs of Americans, especially those who are poor, disabled, aged and requiring medical services. When there are debates over budget cuts or reducing our huge national debt obligations, it is often the programs under the title “general Welfare” that are looked to for savings. There is no doubt that both “providing for the common defence and promoting the general Welfare” are critical ingredients for our country’s future, but there will always be a political disagreement over what goal is most important and how best to distribute what are often scarce fiscal resources.

And finally, “The Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” There is no more important value enshrined in the political and governmental culture of the United States than liberty. From the days of independence to be free of British rule to the modern era when in the “Star-Spangled Banner” we sing about “the land of the free,” Americans have been raised on the premise that we are a free country and that we cherish the rights that make us free. There of course are other values that define our way of life such as equality, opportunity, democracy, fairness, and personal dignity, but it is liberty that makes us Americans. As with the other ingredients of the Preamble’s job description, there have been debates over the limits or expansions of liberty in our society — how free should we be as a people? At some points in our history liberties have been upheld such as the freedom to burn the flag as a right under the First Amendment, while at other times freedom has been limited as when the right to access to an abortion procedure has been curtailed in some states. Protecting American’s right to liberty has always been a balancing act, yet Americans have never wavered in their demands to be free and not be limited by government decree or action. No matter if the balancing of freedom and government-imposed order has been a difficult exercise, in the end freedom remains the inevitable goal.

The Preamble to the Constitution is one of those little snippets of our history that many of us had to memorize in high school civics classes. Although the Constitution itself is largely a listing and description of structure and procedure, the goals and responsibilities stated in the Preamble are worth remembering as our job description for governing. In many respects the opening words of “We the People” define us as a democracy, a work in progress, but always centered on making Americans the driving force of our nation.