We The People. Art Kane, 1961
The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest written national constitution in use. It was completed on September 17, 1787, with its adoption by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was later ratified by special conventions in each state. It created a federal union of sovereign states, and a federal government to operate that union. It replaced the less defined union that had existed under the Articles of Confederation. It took effect on March 4, 1789 and has served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations.
The Constitutional Convention began deliberations on May 25, 1787. The delegates were generally convinced that an effective central government with a wide range of enforceable powers must replace the weaker Congress established by the Articles of Confederation. The high quality of the delegates to the convention was remarkable. As Thomas Jefferson in Paris wrote to John Adams in London, “It really is an assembly of demigods.”
On July 24, a committee of five (John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), Oliver Ellsworth (CT), and James Wilson (PA)) was elected to draft a detailed constitution. The Convention adjourned from July 26 to August 6 to await the report of this “Committee of Detail”. Overall, the report of the committee conformed to the resolutions adopted by the Convention, adding some elements.
From August 6 to September 10, the report of the committee of detail was discussed, section-by-section, and clause-by-clause. Details were attended to, and further compromises were effected. Toward the close of these discussions, on September 8, a “Committee of Style” of five was appointed. Its final version was taken up on Monday, September 17, at the Convention’s final session. Several of the delegates were disappointed in the result, a makeshift series of unfortunate compromises. Some delegates left before the ceremony, and three others refused to sign. Of the thirty-nine signers, Benjamin Franklin summed up addressing the Convention, “There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.” He would accept the Constitution, “because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
Annotations to the 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 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.
Although the preamble is not a source of power for any department of the Federal Government, the Supreme Court has often referred to it as evidence of the origin, scope, and purpose of the Constitution. Its origin and authority is in “We, the people of the United States”. This echoes the Declaration of Independence. “One people” dissolved their connection with another, and assumed among the powers of the earth, a sovereign nation-state. The scope of the Constitution is twofold. First, “to form a more perfect Union” than had previously existed in the “perpetual Union” of the Articles of Confederation. Second, to “secure the blessings of liberty”, which were to be enjoyed by not only the first generation, but for all who came after, “our posterity”.
This is an itemized social contract of democratic philosophy. It details how the more perfect union was to be carried out between the national government and the people. The people are to be provided (a) justice, (b) civil peace, (c) common defense, (d) those things of a general welfare that they could not provide themselves, and (e) freedom. A government of “liberty and union, now and forever”, unfolds when “We” begin and establish this Constitution.