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.
In 1787, when the new United States Constitution was signed, We the People were a brand new country just separated from the biggest empire on Earth.
Thirteen British colonies had banded together to defeat tyranny and set their own course in the world. Their goal was to create a government that would represent the people fairly, that would respond to the will of the governed, and that would understand that its powers come from the governed.
This idea of bottom-up authority was new. The old monarchical standard held that the power of kings came from God and the king could do just about whatever he wanted.
This new nation was setting forth the idea that the authority came from below, from the consent of the governed. That had never been tried in the history of the world, and the delegates knew it. Let me introduce you to a few key players and their ideas. I will explore the Preamble to the Constitution by finding out what its contributors thought about it.
Meet the Founders
James Madison, who became our fourth President, was known as the Father of the Constitution. Madison had helped to write the Virginia Plan, which served as the prototype for the US. Constitution. Madison also contributed to the Federalist Papers, which helped popularize the ideas embodied in the Constitution.
He believed that a single large republic would better protect private rights and public good than an assortment of small republics. Madison believed the Constitution was enough as written, but Thomas Jefferson, his mentor, was instrumental in turning him toward the addition of the Bill of Rights.
Jefferson did not attend the Constitutional convention because he was in Paris at the time, but he corresponded with Madison.
Alexander Hamilton, another writer of the Federalist Papers, later served as the Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton’s views, embodied in Federalism, were often at odds with those of Jefferson and Madison, which were the views of the Democrat-Republicans.
Ben Franklin was the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention at the age of 81. The publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin was known for pithy remarks and homespun wisdom as well as his philanthropic efforts to fund hospitals, libraries, and educational institutions.
He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and negotiated the Treaty of Paris with John Jay and John Adams, ending the War for Independence.
As an abolitionist, Franklin had reservations about portions of the Constitution, but felt it was the best document that could be written at the time. He advocated a prayer each morning so that God would bless the deliberations of the Convention.
Gouverneur Morris actually wrote the Preamble to the Constitution. He advocated nationalism and aristocratic rule and played a large part in crafting the Constitution.
George Washington, the Father of our Country, led the troops in the Revolutionary War and then wanted to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon home, but yielded to the urging of James Madison and General Henry Knox and became the president of the Constitutional Convention.
He believed that a strong central government was necessary to maintain order and prosperity in the new nation. His willingness to become the first President of the United States gave the Convention Delegates the confidence to give the Executive Branch only one leader instead of making it a committee of three.
We will be investigating the Preamble, line by line, through the eyes of those who framed the Constitution.
A More Perfect Union
The thirteen British colonies that united to win their freedom from the largest empire on earth started life individually, and by the time of the Constitutional Convention each had a unique history and personality, with diverse economic and religious concerns.
Pennsylvania, for instance, was Quaker country. Massachusetts was settled by Puritans. South Carolina was established with Anglicanism (Church of England) as its official religion.
Economic and social distinctions as well as differences in racial composition made each state approach the Union with different priorities. This is why the original Articles of Confederation made a very loose organization.
The problem was that a loose union could not adequately protect its members from foreign encroachment because it did not have enough power to raise adequate taxes or enough authority to regulate the behavior of its citizens.
Here’s what our Founders thought about the subject:
Gouvernour Morris felt the need to choose between a federation and a national government, the “former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties; the latter having a compleat and compulsive operation.”
Alexander Hamilton, known for his aristocratic sympathies, felt the British government was “the best in the world,” and wanted to model our new Constitution after English law.
On the subject of a strong central government favored by the Federalists, James Madison wrote, “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
Ben Franklin had misgivings about the new Constitution but kept the details to himself, making a statement at the close of the Convention: “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafeyette, a French aristocrat who fought in the American Revolution,
” Should that which is now offered to the People of America, be found on experiment less perfect than it can be made, a Constitutional door is left open for its amelioration.”
Given the widely varying expectations of the American public and the skepticism of some of the Revolution’s heroes (Patrick Henry, for example “smelled a rat” in the new Constitution), it is amazing that the thirteen colonies came to a conclusion that allowed them to unite under one national umbrella.
Gouverneur Morris sat on the Style Committee that transformed the simple message into the beautiful words we have today. He molded the ideas of the Constitution into phrases that strike a chord with our ears over two hundred years later.
Justice had not been established during the rule of King George III of England, and Morris made sure that the concept of justice was one of the first introduced in the opening words of the new Constitution.
James Madison wanted the judiciary branch of the government to have a central role because it “maintains private Rights against all the corruptions of the other two departments,” a reference to the legislative and executive branches.
As the Constitutional Convention progressed, he became an advocate of the balance of power that comes from having three branches of government, so that no one branch gets to do everything it wants.
In England the king controlled Parliament by granting favors. To prevent this sort of interference with justice, in our Constitution the salaries of the judges are not decided by the legislature, and judges have a lifetime appointment so they will be independent of the opinions of the other branches “during good behavior.”
Madison advocated for an executive and judiciary council that would have power to disapprove pending legislation, because “it is more convenient to prevent the passage of a law, than to declare it void after it is passed.”
In the end however, judicial review became a back-end process. The laws are written and the Supreme Court reviews them only when a case is brought to test the constitutionality of the law.
Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers along with James Madison and John Jay (who became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). Hamilton stated “the complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution.”
A proponent of the checks and balances that keep the three branches from overpowering each other, Hamilton stated, “this conclusion does not suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both.”
In the case of a law that stood in opposition to the Constitution, Hamilton declared that “the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former.”
George Washington said “I have always been persuaded that the stability and success of the National Government, and consequently the happiness of the people of the United States, would depend in a considerable degree on the interpretations and execution of its laws.”
On choosing the right members of the judiciary, Washington said, “In assenting to the opinion that the due administration of justice is the strongest cement of good government, you will also agree with me that the first organization of the judicial department is essential to the happiness of our country.”
Ben Franklin listed justice as one of the thirteen virtues needed for success. “Without justice,” he said, “courage is weak.”
In regard to the presumption of inoccence, he said, “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.”
Insure Domestic Tranquility
America needed to organize itself. The monetary system under the Articles of Confederation did not work well because they did not provide a suitable framework for effective government, with the ability to enforce laws and pay for things like roads and armies.
Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787 exemplified the unrest that worried the Founders. Underpaid Revolutionary War veterans attempted to take over the Springfield Armory and disrupted court proceedings.
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no good mechanism to raise money to pay the veterans. Meanwhile local and state taxes were going unpaid.
Farmers were trying to live on credit, but creditors were demanding cash. At that point in history, a debtor could be imprisoned for not paying what he owed.
A farmer named Plough Jogger voiced the common angst as a desire for “no more courts, nor sheriffs, nor collectors nor lawyers.” Debtors wanted the government to issue paper money, which would devalue the currency and make the debts easier to pay, but this would cause creditors to lose the value of the money they had loaned.
This unrest may well have influenced Gouverneur Morris when he choose to include the phrase “insure domestic Tranquility” in his wording of the Preamble.
When the Committee on Detail proposed that Congressional power to quell internal violence should require the application of the legislatures of the states, Morris replied, “We first form a strong man to protect us, and at the same time wish to tie his hands behind him, The legislature may surely be trusted with such a power to preserve the public tranquillity.”
In other words, don’t make the states ask for help before allowing Congress to intervene in a rebellion.
Morris was a proponent of giving the national government exclusive right to coin money and to punish counterfeiting. This was Alexander Hamilton’s moment to shine. Once the Constitution was in place, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury.
An advocate of a strong central government, he was the force behind establishing the national banking system that spurred economic growth.
The Bank of the United States was granted a twenty year charter and conducted general commercial business in addition to acting for the government. Well managed and profitable, it set the financial tone for the new nation, but its charter was not renewed in 1811.
James Madison proposed a balance between state and national authority: “The authority of training the militia, and appointing the officers, is reserved to the states. Congress ought to have the power to establish a uniform discipline throughout the states, and to provide for the execution of the laws, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions … without such a power to suppress insurrections, our liberties might be destroyed by domestic faction, and domestic tyranny be established.”
Patrick Henry objected that too much power was being given to the national government.
Madison replied “A republican government is to be guarantied [sic] to each state, and they are to be protected from invasion from other states, as well as from foreign powers; …it gives them a supplementary security to suppress insurrections and domestic violence.”
George Washington was a law and order man. When asked about using his influence to appease the parties involved in Shays’ Rebellion, he stated, “Influence is not government. Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”
As President. Washington oversaw the use of the militia from neighboring states to quell the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in Pennsylvania (against the federal excise tax on whiskey set in place by Alexander Hamilton).
Quickly defeating the Rebellion, Washington then pardoned those convicted of treason in the matter.
When he left office voluntarily at the end of his second term, Washington stated in his farewell address: “The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
I cannot leave this topic without noting the unrest in our current situation. Treason is defined as attempting to overthrow the government or harm the leaders of the government.
Treasonous rebellion is currently happening in our cities today. Entire blocks of cities have been seized by the terrorist organization Antifa and ruled like tiny kingdoms in the midst of our vast republic.
Local governments are breaking the longstanding US policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Rioters loot, burn, and and tear down statues without even considering the history involved.
Ulysses S Grant and Francis Scott Key, for instance, lost statues in San Francisco on June 19th of 2020. Rioters claim to be protesting racial injustice, but Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. Grant led the Union Army to defeat the South in the Civil War, under President Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves!
Let us restore the domestic tranquility our founders sought by reinforcing the rule of law. The states have the first right to quell riots and insurrections, and then it is up to the national government to step in when the states are unable to control their internal chaos.
The Common Defense
The most important thing a nation can do is defend its citizens. Our Founders knew this, because they lived with the threat of incursion from stronger, more mature nations with a history of colonizing new nations.
Our fifth President, James Monroe, would institute the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, declaring the United States to be opposed to any European intervention in North and South America. Latin American countries had recently freed themselves from the colonial rule of Spain and Portugal.
Authored by John Quincy Adams, who would one day be the sixth President of the United States, the Monroe Doctrine declared that colonizing the Americas would constitute “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
In return for leaving us alone, we would not interfere with existing European colonies or the internal affairs of Europe. American had begun to take its place in the order of nations.
But Monroe had opposed the ratification of the Constitution. What did the framers of the Constitution think about defending our borders? Back up a few years to James Madison, who would become our fourth President. He articulated the sentiment that would lead to the Monroe Doctrine in Federalist Paper #41:
” The fortunes of disunited America will be even more disastrous than those of Europe… A plentiful addition of evils would have their source in that relation in which Europe stands to this quarter of the earth, and which no other quarter of the earth bears to Europe.
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper #23, advocated a strong central government for the purpose of defense:
The authorities essential to the common defense are these: to raise armies; to build and equip fleets; to prescribe rules for the government of both; to direct their operations; to provide for their support. These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM.
George Washington knew the value of preparedness, having led the Americans to victory in the Revolutionary War:
“If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for War.”
“A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well-digested plan is requisite; and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories as tend to render them independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.”
Our Founders set a great deal of value on protecting the new nation from foreign invasion. At that time, Europe was the biggest threat.
In the twenty first century the threat is more insidious. Rather than sending large fleets to conquer us, our enemies come in small groups as illegal immigrants, often with ties to established overseas terrorist organizations.
Under President Barak Obama we corroded our borders severely, even going so far as to drive busloads of illegal aliens into the interior of our vast nation, dropping them in groups of dozens at a time on local municipalities and then expecting cities and school systems to absorb them, making services available in their native languages.
President Trump has taken a tactic that would have made more sense for our Founders: welcome immigrants, but insist that they follow the rules established.
Secure our borders. Strengthen the military. Build physical barriers at the borders and staff them to prevent the insidious invasion of people who do not revere the principles on which we were founded.
It matters very much who is elected to the seats of power in this country, because our elected officials write the laws and execute them. If you are worried about our nation’s security, I urge you to get involved. Share your views with your local, state, and national officials. Discuss politics with your friends and neighbors. Stand up to injustices you see in enforcement of the laws. Above all, while you still can, vote!
The General Welfare
Promoting the general welfare of the citizens of the United States refers to the power of taxation to provide the services of the government and encourage commerce. From the beginning, our Founders agreed that the government has a role in promoting the general welfare, but they had varying ideas on the scope of that role.
George Washington saw the encouragement of industry as an important component of the government’s role: he stated in his first Presidential address that “The advance of agriculture, commerce and manufactures by all proper means will not, I trust, need recommendation.”
Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, was in Paris at the time of the Constitutional Convention, but had a strong influence on Madison. He had a limited view of the government’s ability to tax and spend:
“[T]he laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They [Congress] are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union.”
As the first Secretary of the Treasury under the new Constitution, Alexander Hamilton had a lot to say in his Report on Manufactures. He looked at each industry in the United States and compiled a monetary philosophy to benefit the country as a whole by encouraging industry:
“Not only the wealth; but the independence and security of a Country, appear to be materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures.
The extreme embarrassments of the United States during the late War, from an incapacity of supplying themselves, are still matter of keen recollection.”
Hamilton would be much more likely than the other Founders to find our current tax burden reasonable, but even he had limits on which taxes were acceptable:
There are certain species of taxes, which are apt to be oppressive to different parts of the community, and among other ill effects have a very unfriendly aspect towards manufactures. All Poll or Capitation taxes are of this nature.”
He also did not find an income tax acceptable:
All such taxes (including all taxes on occupations) which proceed according to the amount of capital supposed to be employed in a business, or of profits supposed to be made in it are unavoidably hurtful to industry.”
The framers of the Constitution would likely regard our currently enormous, bloated tax and spend system with chagrin.
Instead of prompting and improving the efforts of industry, we are currently regulating small and large businesses into bankruptcy at an alarming rate.
The closure of the economy in the spring of 2020 surely would not have made sense even to Alexander Hamilton as it prompted the bankruptcy of such iconic businesses as J Crew and Neiman Marcus. Government is supposed to encourage commerce, not kill it.
Secure the Blessings of Liberty
Having established a new nation founded upon liberty, our Founders wanted to keep it, not just for themselves but for generations to come. In this clause of the Preamble to the Constitution they were considering how to stabilize liberty for you and me.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper #85 a list of ways in which the new Constitution would safeguard future generations against usurpations of liberty. I paraphrase here for brevity:
- Restraints on local factions and insurrections and powerful individuals in single states
- Decreased opportunity for foreign intrigue
- Prevention of wars between the states
- Guarantee of a republican form of government to each state
- Exclusion of titles of nobility
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, James Madison explored the balance between too much and too little government that must be attained to preserve liberty:
‘‘It is a melancholy reflection that liberty should be equally exposed to danger whether the Government has too much or too little power; and that the line which divides these extremes should be so inaccurately defined by experience.’’
Madison showed optimism for future generations when he stated, “The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.”
Ben Franklin was less optimistic:
I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
Franklin was near the end of his long life, and had seen abuses of power that made him wonder whether any government could be kept from despotism, but, he concluded, it was worth a try:
It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one another’s throats.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address after serving as our first President, summarized the value of the Constitution:
The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.
Washington foresaw the power of union in dealing with other countries:
[T]hey must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments.
Washington understood the danger of special interest groups splitting the nation into warring factions:
They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.
Washington also warned us against excessive borrowing, which leads to excessive taxation:
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit…towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.
Ordain and Establish
Our Founders took a big leap of faith when they went to the Constitutional Convention that was called to revise the Articles of Confederation and came out with an entirely different form of government.
General sentiment ran toward less government, not more, for colonies that had just thrown off the yoke of colonization.
The problem was that less government left the thirteen newly independent states as tiny nations, vulnerable to attack from the large and established governments across the Atlantic that still lusted after our vast and wide open land with its rich resources.
Thirteen individual nations joined in a loose confederation did not have the collective ability to organize a structure to provide armies, roads, and a cohesive system of government.
After four months of working out every foreseeable problem, the Constitutional Convention came up with a document that was not even close to the one they were sent to revise.
Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist Paper #15 the lack of cohesive government under the Articles of Confederation: “Are we in a condition to resent or to repel the aggression? We have neither troops, nor treasury, nor government.”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, took the criticism against his progeny head on, explaining in Federalist Paper #40 how the revisions needed for the Articles of Confederation ultimately required a wholesale change to a new system:
We have seen that in the new government, as in the old, the general powers are limited; and that the States, in all unenumerated cases, are left in the enjoyment of their sovereign and independent jurisdiction.
Ben Franklin finally put his stamp of approval on the new form of government:
I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
Ratification of the new Constitution depended on the the willingness of George Washington to forego retirement and accept the office of President of the United States.
Washington energetically campaigned for ratification, sending copies to influencers such as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, and corresponding with its opponents, including Patrick Henry (who ultimately refused to sign).
In his Inaugural Address to Congress, he stressed the importance of adhering to the ideals set forth in the Constitution:
[T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.
Washington believed strongly in the new system of government, and refused to take a salary for his role as President. He closed his inaugural remarks by appealing to God to bless the new nation.
Our Founders had hope that we would still have a republic founded on liberty. So far we do, but as George Washington foresaw, internal and external enemies are insidiously and covertly working against liberty all the time.
When asked what sort of government the Constitution would foster, Ben Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
When you see things in the government that alarm you, call your representatives. Talk to your neighbors. Vote. Keep reading my blog to learn more about your Constitutional rights.
Let’s keep our republic!
The best source for understanding our Constitution is the writings of those who wrote it. To see the entire text of the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, go to thefederalistpapers.org. To read the Constitution itself, go to the national archives.
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