The Meaning of the Preamble
By Dennis Haugh – Aug 19, 2020
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.
The Preamble to the US Constitution is a statement of purpose. It is a declaration that the people of the United States were replacing the system of governance under the Articles of Confederation with a new one. It is John Locke’s declaration that the people have the right to replace their government whenever they choose in action.
The main statement of the Preamble can be shortened to “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It is roughly the same as the first draft that came from the Committee of Detail on 6 Aug 1787. Notes on the paper labeled Draft IV from the Committee of Detail clearly state the purpose of the Preamble:
… the object of our preamble ought to be briefly to (represent) declare, that the present foederal government is insufficient to the general happiness, that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention; …
Today we might send such a message in an email with the Constitution as a pdf attachment, but in 1787, it made sense to prefix it to the document.
The initial draft listed the thirteen states individually, including Rhode Island. That tiny state refused to even send representatives to the Convention and resisted ratification until the first Senate sent it a “join or die” message in mid-May 1790.
We the People of (and) the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New. York, New. Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North. Carolina, South. Carolina and Georgia do ordain declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of ourselves and of our Posterity.
The statement we recognize today was crafted by the Committee of Style on 12 Sep 1787. The Constitution itself tells us what the government is and how it is to interact with the people and the state governments in general terms. But the Preamble is specific and tells us exactly why the framers crafted the Constitution.
Consider the individual phrases between the start and end of the main statement.
in Order to form a more perfect Union
This is the key phrase in the Preamble. It tells us THE reason for the Constitution was to establish a tighter union of the states by framing a “general government” that had more power than the Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
To our modern ears, “a more perfect” anything sounds oxymoronic. Perfection does not occur in degrees. It is an absolute. But the meaning of “perfect” was different in 1787. The primary meaning of the term was “complete” or “finished.” Completion can be partial. If we were to rewrite the phrase today, we would say “in order to form a more complete union.”
The union becomes more complete by weakening the autonomy of the states. Early in the Philadelphia Convention, a number of the delegates actually pushed for eliminating the states altogether, which would have eliminated the word “more” from the Preamble and eliminated the federal system completely. “More perfect” states that a balance was struck that retained a weakened federal system.
The rest of the phrases in the Preamble go on to explain the goals of establishing a stronger central government:
- establish Justice
- insure domestic Tranquility
- provide for the common defence
- promote the general Welfare
- secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
Aristotle identified a “common sense of justice” as the building block of civil society. But a federal system that promoted liberty had to respect the internal policing of the states. The Constitution was to serve as the building block of a system of laws that would be divided between national and state concerns. Each of the branches of government had a role in implementing a justice system.
Insure domestic Tranquility
The Articles of Confederation had proven unable to quell unrest. In Massachusetts, Shay’s Rebellion had a profound effect upon the delegates to the Convention. And Pennsylvania and Connecticut had almost gone to war over Wilkes-Barre. The framers definitely wanted a stronger mediator among the states.
provide for the common defence
The most important role of government is to defend the people from an invader. The Confederate Congress under the Articles of Confederation had proven too weak to do so. It was at the mercy of the states for provisioning the army. This was perhaps the strongest motivation for Hamilton’s “power of the purse” argument leading up to adopting the Constitution.
promote the general Welfare
“General welfare” meant exactly that – the well-being of citizens in general. It had no connotation of the modern meaning that is slanted totally for taking care of the poor. The framers only intended to promote a system that allowed all to prosper, be healthy, and pursue happiness. The framers saw no role for the government in personal finances.
secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
This is perhaps the central reason for the Constitution – and the stronger central government. All of the phrases leading up to this one describe elements that are necessary for liberty. They were concerned about European powers invading individual states. The monetary system wasn’t “worth a Continental” – meaning worthless. They feared that unrest and interstate squabbles would lead to conquest of the states like the Macedonian conquest of the ancient Greek states. Liberty could not be preserved unless the preceding constraints were satisfied.
But the framers were not politicians; they were statesmen. They were framing a government that was intended to secure liberty for generations to come. So far, that includes twelve generations.
Languages move. As a result, meanings of the written word can shift. Two of the 52 words of the Preamble have shifted, but that does not mean that the Preamble should be reinterpreted. It still means what it meant in 1787.
In one case, the word welfare, the shift was the result of corrupting the term to satisfy a social goal that was not supported by the Constitution. In 1937, the Supreme Court found that Social Security was constitutional by citing the “general welfare” clause in Article I, Section 8. That case expanded and reinterpreted the meaning of the word. It is worth noting that FDR was threatening to pack the Court at the time.
None of the US founding documents support the notion that government was a charity. In fact, James Madison, considered the architect of the Constitution, stated as such on 10 Jan 1794 when refugees from the Haitian Slave Revolt were suffering along the east coast of the United States.
Mr. Madison wished to relieve the sufferers, but was afraid of establishing a dangerous precedent, which might hereafter be perverted to the countenance of purposes, very different from those of charity. He acknowledged, for his own part, that he could not undertake to lay his finger on that article in the Federal constitution, which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents. And if once they broke the line laid down before them, for the direction of their conduct, it was impossible to say, to what lengths they might go, or to what extremities this practice might be carried. [sic] (italics mine)
As Madison noted, once a restriction in the Constitution is breached, there is no bound on the resulting practice. The spending problem that the national government has was ignited by the misuse of “general welfare” clause in Article I, Section 8.
A number of citizens have begun promoting the notion that we’re not a “perfect union,” but we’re working on it. There are two ways to interpret the implication.
The first interpretation is to consider the phrase as the framers did, which would mean the abandonment of federalism. This would leave one monolithic government – a complete union without states. Proponents of federalism should never promote anything that could remotely be interpreted as such.
The other interpretation is to ignore the modern oxymoron and consider “union” to mean society. The implication is that our society is not perfect, but we’re working on it. In other words, we have to reform society to become perfect. But what is social perfection? Anyone contemplating this interpretation needs to consider Madison’s words in Federalist #51:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Humans are not angels. Society is composed of humans. Therefore, society can never be perfect.
Social reform of any kind is destabilizing. A society that is in a constant state of reform will not survive long. For a society to be moral, it must first be stable.
The notion of trying to become a perfect society is the aim of Marxist Utopia. Those who cheer for a “perfect society” are unwittingly buying into Marxism’s main goal and its associated instability. If that weren’t bad enough, in 1928, Joseph Stalin identified social reform as the ideal “smoke screen” for the Maxist-Leninist “vanguard” to use while doing its illegal acts. Since then we have been inculcated into the belief that we need reform.
At some point, society has to accept that it is a moral (not perfect) society and live with its imperfections, or it will tear itself apart in frustration. It will overcompensate and create inversions of previous injustice that are not justice but new forms of injustice. This is very much in evidence in 2020.
Society needs to give itself a break from the constant feeling of inadequacy – if it wants to survive. A good society is a stable society. An unstable society is an immoral society.
 Farrand, Vol 2, pg 113
 “Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1793 TUESDAY,May 11, 1790.,” American Memory: Remaining Collections, accessed August 14, 2020, http://www.memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw%3A3%3A.%2Ftemp%2F~ammem_bdXX%3A%3A.
 Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language: in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers. To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar. By Samuel Johnson. In Two Volumes… London: Printed for J. Mifflin, 1777.
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 “Is Social Security Constitutional? – LewRockwell LewRockwell.com.” LewRockwell.com. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://www.lewrockwell.com/2003/05/john-attarian/is-social-security-constitutional/.
 “Founders Online: Santo Domingan Refugees, [10 January] 1794.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed March 23, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-15-02-0117.