Appealing to Our Better Nature
By Stewart MacLeod | Oct. 16, 2021
In today’s partisan milieu, the benefit of the country appears to be taking a back seat to the partisan politics that are tearing at the fabric of our republican democracy. We need to step back and evaluate where our country is headed.
One helpful way to view the situation is through the prism of our Constitution’s preamble; we need to understand the spirit - not just the letter - of our Constitution. The articles and amendments need to be read in light of the preamble, which sets the tone for everything that follows.
I believe that some of today’s political partisanship contravenes what is in the Constitution’s preamble. This says to me that certain of these partisan actions are unconstitutional – and that is without having to refer to either an article or an amendment. They may fulfill the letter but not the true spirit of our Constitution – but more on that later.
Primacy of the Preamble
As you are aware, there are three parts to the U.S. Constitution: a preamble, seven articles and 27 amendments. I propose that the most important is the preamble, as it defines what the Constitution is all about – its overarching spirit. The articles and amendments fine-tune how to achieve what the preamble sets out – the nuts and bolts, as it were, or the “letter” of the Constitution.
In splitting hairs over the articles and amendments, it is easy to forget what the preamble’s six principles set out to convey: a viable, equitable, and lasting republic. To do this, we need to thoroughly understand the import of the Constitution’s preamble:
“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.”
The preamble’s six principles are:
· A more perfect union: An efficient, functioning, and lasting government among the states;
· Justice: An equitable legal system for all citizens;
· Domestic tranquility: The absence of conflict among the states and citizens;
· Common defense: Necessary for the security of our nation as a whole and its people;
· General welfare: An equitable lifestyle and benefit to all; and
· Liberty: Living and acting as one sees fit as long as this does not infringe on the rights of others.
Preamble as a Litmus Test
The Constitution’s articles defined how the new government was to be set up and run (basically, how to form a more perfect union), but they also address some of the preamble’s other five principles. The amendments, especially the first 10, also zero in on the principles established in the preamble. In short, to determine whether something is constitutional or not, one ought to verify first if it is in keeping with the preamble.
The Constitution’s preamble should be a guide to a just and equitable means of governance to every state, locale and citizen. A guide, or a moral compass, if you will, is necessary if this country is to survive as a viable democratic republic serving the needs of all who reside therein.
Today’s Partisan Politics
What is happening today at the local, state, and national levels is often contrary to the six principles defined in the preamble, making Ben Franklin’s retort when asked what resulted from the Constitutional Convention – “A republic, if you can keep it,” – very relevant to our times.
All six principles are necessary to ensure that we continue as a republic for the benefit and betterment of our populace. Unfortunately, it seems to me that some of our elected officials have forgotten there is a preamble or – worse – are simply ignoring what it means.
One specific example, in my view, of this situation is the recent spate of restrictive voting legislation that contravenes the justice, general welfare and liberty principles in the Constitution’s preamble.
The Way Forward
The Constitution was drafted at a time when it was necessary to accommodate the various desires of the 13 governments that would become states in the new nation. Yet it was crafted so that it could be changed as needed – and it has been. As the country grew, it became necessary to refine the document with amendments so that the preamble remained relevant. As fine a document as it was when drafted, it has shown the ability to keep pace with the changing needs of the citizens and times.
As we read and seek to understand our Constitution, I suggest that each of us first needs a thorough understanding of its preamble. It is, by definition, the introductory part of a statute or deed, stating its purpose, aims, and justification. The rest of the document simply lays out how to achieve those primary purposes, aims and justification.
Only then can we as a nation and its individuals fulfill not just the letter, but the spirit of our Constitution. Only then can we achieve a “… government of the people, by the people, and for the people…” that will continue.
Stewart MacLeod earned a BA in history at Albion College and an MA in Ottoman history at the University of Michigan. He then spent 30-plus years in Turkey as an area analyst for the U.S. government. Now in retirement in Traverse City, he is indulging his interest in U.S. history, bettering his understanding of where we came from, where we are and where we might be headed.