What’s a government for?
Philosophers meticulously ponder. Political scientists tediously elaborate. Politicians and pundits endlessly and fruitlessly debate. And you and I roll our eyes.
We know. Just take care of us. And leave us alone. And don’t tax us very much. And maybe take care of others who need help.
In an age of polarized, paralyzed politics, and shrill ideological fundamentalism on both left and right, maybe we would do well to take a time out. Maybe we should listen anew to the Framers who invented our enduring system of government.
Maybe on this Constitution Day 2014 we should review the simple brilliance of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. In so doing we renew an annual series that in recent years looked at Abraham Lincoln’s Constitutional views, but this year returns to the document itself.
Have you thought much about it?
It turns out that a close reading of the Preamble reveals an almost crystalline structure, an interconnected web of basic principles.
And it must be visualized.
Let's first imagine it — inadequately — as a corporate directive, with crisp bullet points.
To: Americans, present and future
From: We the People of the United States
Re: Good Government
Date: 17 September 1787
Mission: To form a more perfect union
- Establish justice
- Ensure domestic tranquility
- Provide for the common defense
- Promote the general welfare
- Secure the blessings of liberty
So ... did you get the memo?
Except the memo metaphor helps only up to a point. It’s too mechanical. And it misses a lot. So let’s turn it over to the creative types to render it in graphic display for a TED talk. Imagine the visuals that might open new insights. Imagine, further, if our tech crew went back to interview the author ...
As our time-traveling graphics-types learn, when the Constitutional Convention wrapped up its exhaustive deliberations late in the muggy Philadelphia summer of 1787, the 55 delegates found themselves with 23 assorted resolutions. They now faced the task of reducing these propositions to a coherent and compelling text. They gratefully dumped that chore on a “Committee of Style and Arrangement.” Among the five named to the Committee, one little-remembered gentleman took the lead.
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton — these are the luminaries remembered as the Framers (or, in former times, the Founding Fathers). But our interviewers must ferret out the stylist behind the Preamble, indeed the organizer of the entire Constitution text, New York’s Gouverneur Morris — well known and well respected by his peers, though today forgotten. (And, if not forgotten, confused with some random governor, which he never was, or with fellow founder Robert Morris, which he likewise never was.)
In a revolutionary age, the gifted pen of Gouverneur Morris wrought a revolution of its own.
At 6 feet, towering over most of the delegates except Washington, Morris was a New Yorker in the mold of the infant nation’s elite: “well bred, well read, well wed, and well fed.” With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia, he had worked as a lawyer and served in various political offices. Large of stature in both height and breadth, brilliant if sometimes abrasive in small talk and public deliberations alike, highly sought as a sparkling dinner guest, highly respected as a literary stylist, he crafted the Constitution’s final draft and artfully recast its Preamble.
Let Gouverneur Morris be forgotten no more, and his Preamble blazed anew in our consciousness. For it is a literary no less than a philosophical masterpiece, detailing the What, Why, and How of constitutional government in one short sentence.
The Preamble’s “What”
On hasty reading, the short Preamble seems like a straightforward, even trite, itemized to-do list for government officials. But by visualizing its structure, we can probe deeper.
First, consider its near-poetic structure. Construe its eight phrases as a set of echoing parallelisms, in the form:
Second, feel the graceful cadencing and alliteration of the C lines:
“establish . . . insure” and “provide . . . promote.”
Next, notice that if one reads from the outside in, one encounters in turn the answers to those questions of What, Why, and How.
More particularly, observe the bracketing clauses (A and A'), which stand as a simple enabling declaration: “We the people of the United States ... do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” This statement conceals — to us though not to suspicious Americans in 1787 — one of Morris’ revolutionary edits.
As they came to him from the convention floor, the 23 resolutions had a preface beginning “we the people of New Hampshire” and the 12 other states in geographical order north to south. Morris dropped the list of states, thereby making the creators of government not the sovereign states of a loose coalition but the unified collective American citizenry — the people. In so doing, asserts historian and law professor Peter Hoffer in his recent For Ourselves and Our Posterity (Oxford, 2013), he “changed a federation into a union and laid out an ambitious program for national governance.”
So what did those sovereign people “ordain and establish” by the Preamble’s declarative statement? What exactly is a “constitution”?
In brief, 18th-century Americans understood that a government was “constituted” by historical practice and occasional legislative prescription. So a simple synonym for “constitution” is “setup.” As one might speak of having a sturdy or delicate constitution; so one could speak of the constitution of the body politic. Abuse one’s constitution — one’s body — and suffer ill health; violate the government’s “constitution” or “setup” and the citizenry will analogously suffer.
Thus when American colonials condemned British laws as “unconstitutional,” they meant simply that the politicians in power were abusing the traditional setup of the British government.
What frustrated them most, however, was that the British setup derived from no single written document and thus British officials could not be called to account by citing chapter and verse. Colonies, however, functioned on the basis of their original written charters. In their newly independent republic, Americans would insist on a written charter, or frame-of-government, or “constitution,” making the setup transparent.
More particularly, three things were to be made clear in a written Constitution. First, it would serve as a charter of government, yielding power to leaders for the sake of the common good (the classic “social contract” of political philosophers). Second, it would specify the structure of government, in particular separating the legislative, executive, and judicial functions into distinct architectures. Third, in so doing it would legitimate but also constrain the actions of government.
Once set up, or constituted, government could rule as an instrument of the popular will. But to what end? Morris offered six purposes, but two loom largest as the Why of good government.
The Preamble’s “Why”
Gouverneur Morris’ phrasing fulfilled his design to transform America into a unified nation. He chafed with the knowledge that the United States had come into being as disunited states, individual rebelling colonies jealously protective of their separateness. To be sure, to win independence, they had had to work together, somewhat grudgingly, coordinated by a Congress representing each of the 13 states. The Congress had instituted a Continental Army to fight the British. But under the wartime frame of government, the Articles of Confederation, Congress couldn’t do much more. When peace came, all the perils of disunity — from internal disruption to external vulnerability — were exposed.
Morris therefore centered the Why of government on what needed to be fixed. (I detailed the “flaws and fixes” in my 2007 Constitution Day essay.) The replacement Constitution must create a “more perfect union.”
Focus on “union” first. The Confederation was more coalition than union, more like NATO than today’s integrated and permanent union of states. Morris wanted a powerful and centralized government strong enough to hold competing interests together — whether of region or faction.
The key, believed Morris, was a more perfect union.
But now shift to the adjective. Why seek, somewhat ungrammatically, a more perfect union?
Morris, like so many of the Framers, was an Enlightenment visionary. Against the sad record of history, they imagined the possibility of an enduring government rooted in popular consent — a representative and accountable government. That’s what they meant, echoing writers of classical antiquity, by a republic. Such a republic, and its people too, was conceivably perfectible.
Hence the American republic could be improved, argued Morris. Unlike historical republics, America’s story could be projected as one of ascent, not decline from a golden age. Always, under a more perfect union, the best is yet to come.
But why? If the first clause explains that the new republic required a more perfect union, the parallel clause highlights the ultimate purpose of that unified republic: “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
In a nutshell, the preservation of liberty is the fundamental purpose of government. John Locke had famously enumerated the natural rights of humankind: life, liberty, and property. All living humans can claim, by definition, a right to the sanctity of life. And life is meaningful only if it is free — unabused by those wielding power. And that freedom is meaningful only if what is earned by the freely directed energies of an individual produce reward — property — that cannot be arbitrarily taken by others. Life, liberty, property — and the linchpin of these is liberty.
But liberty is not just a selfish claim for the moment. Again Morris’ vision comes into play. It is not just for us, but for our children, and for theirs, that we set up a structure to protect liberty.
Morris here subtly reiterates that when government secures liberty for generations unborn the best is yet to come.
The Preamble’s “How”
If government exists to “secure liberty” through a “more perfect union,” how shall it accomplish this purpose? The inner clauses of the Preamble offer a web of interconnected goals. Again we must visualize.
Shrewdly, Morris first paired “establish justice” with “insure domestic tranquility,” embedding a tacit cause-and-effect relationship. Drawing on harsh experience under the ineffective Articles of Confederation, Morris assumed that a truly just social order is a prerequisite for internal peace and stability. One could read it thus: “establish justice in order to insure domestic tranquility.”
The second pairing similarly implies a causal relationship. In a perilous world, garrisoning the homeland against invasion or subversion (“common defence”) must precede and undergird advancing the public weal (“general welfare”). So again an implicit phrase joins the two: “provide for the common defense in order to promote the general welfare.”
So far so good. Can you visualize it? Justice fosters tranquility; security enables the public good.
But Morris’ web is even more intricate. The two pairings interact with each other. Specifically, the causal clauses (justice and defense) and the resultant clauses (tranquility and welfare) logically connect.
We the people require certain measures of security to enjoy the psychic freedom to live and thrive — to seize the opportunity America promises — to pursue our natural right to happiness, in the words of Jefferson’s Declaration. Justice and defense create that supportive environment. In parallel fashion, in our pursuits we the people ideally deserve to enjoy a social landscape that is, negatively, free from fear (tranquility), and, positively, free for improvement in our lot (welfare).
A final set of pairings emerges on deepest scrutiny. The long-celebrated American Dream, at its core, holds out the possibility of peace and progress for all. Peace is a product of both domestic tranquility and effective defense. Progress comes from maintaining justice and advancing general welfare.
In sum, the deceptively simple inner clauses of Morris’ Preamble, read closely and deeply, reveal deep resonance with fundamental yearnings and expectations cherished by Americans.
We prize equality. The Preamble constitutes a government that will establish justice.
We prize enforcement of the law. The Preamble constitutes a government that will ensure domestic tranquility.
We prize security. The Preamble constitutes a government that will provide for the common defense.
We prize opportunity for all. The Preamble constitutes a government that will promote the general welfare.
(An alert student of presidential oratory might link these directives to Franklin Roosevelt’s articulations of the Four Freedoms central to human rights: the justice and tranquility of freedom of speech and religion, and the security and opportunity that comes from freedom from want and fear.)
Gouverneur Morris, like so many of the Framers, studied history. He knew that the survival of republics was unlikely, but dared to believe that the future could be different — if proper mechanisms for self-government could be constituted. Hence the final way to read the Preamble is as an account of historical diagnosis and prescription.
To “form a more perfect union” is to fix the past. To set up a system linking justice, internal tranquility, external safety, and a healthy domestic order is to balance the present. To offer “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity” is to secure the future.
Such is the deep import of the Preamble. Such is Gouverneur Morris’ priceless legacy — to us.
First Things First
The Preamble to the United States Constitution provides not only a powerful and purposeful introduction to our national charter, not only a set of arguments to persuade the states to approve it (“ratification”), but also a sharp summons to clear-eyed reflection today. Its parallelisms and poetic pairings force us to deal with the First Things of government. And, in the shrill partisanship and instant media of our world, that’s a healthy cold bath of far-thinking realism.
Ironically, such foundational thinking drove an early critic of the Constitution. This opponent of ratification — sibling to one prominent Boston patriot and spouse of another — feared unaccountable power.
Her name was Mercy Otis Warren.
The first American historian of the American Revolution, she celebrated a government of and for the people. “The fundamental principle of a free government,” she wrote, “is the equal representation of a free people.” Yet elected officials can be corrupted by power. The remedy, she insisted, is “that responsibility is the great security of integrity and honor, and that annual elections is the basis of responsibility,” because “a frequent return to the bar of their constituents is the strongest check against the corruptions to which men are liable.”
Warren opposed the Constitution because it provided too few elections. She would have us voting for president and senators every year! Can you imagine?
Still, her own kind of governmental mission statement intersects with Morris’ Preamble. Both seek a “setup” that rests on a united people, choosing representatives to rule them, but only for a fixed term, to ensure accountability.
Warren thought the new setup too powerful and centralized, while Morris intended by his Preamble to enable an even stronger exercise of power as need arose. Morris’ revolutionary vision prevailed and the Constitution was ratified, but the argument over how much centralized power was enough but not too much resumed almost immediately. That clash culminated in Civil War, and — with the Union victory — in the triumph of a constitutional view constructed by the brilliant legal mind who presided over that victory.
On past Constitution Days, I have detailed these cogent constitutional arguments of Abraham Lincoln. Yet, despite Lincoln‘s case for national power bolstered by Northern victory, the exercise of federal authority remains contested.
Gouverneur Morris would relish the argument. His Preamble “constituted” a single sovereign republic, cemented the loose federation of states as one nation, identified the “why” of governing (securing liberty through a more perfect union), and enumerated the interconnected “hows” of protecting the people in order to advance their well-being.
He put first things first.
Perhaps we citizens chafe at what our representatives do for us, whether too much or too little. But we can rally around the whys and hows that Morris laid out in such elegant and intricate fashion.
If argument there must be about strategies and policies, let us insist that our officials root their positions in their most basic charge: the ancient, fertile soil of the Preamble.