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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Real Constitution: Preamble

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure 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.
On this day 223 years ago, the Constitutional Convention was called to order.

Few documents in American history provoke as many debates as our Constitution. (With all due respect to any non-American readers I may have.) As much as some freaks may wish otherwise, not even the Bible is as central to our political discourse as the Constitution. Virtually every single debate we have, from how we should use our military, to how we should take care of the economy, to whether gays should marry, and everything in between - it all comes back to the Constitution in some way. Democrats think it allows a variety of social programs and doesn't allow the Bush administration's interrogation techniques. Republicans think it allows broad latitude in defending our homeland and doesn't protect a woman's right to an abortion. Libertarians think it restricts just about everything; too many politicians think it should allow just about everything.

How are we to interpret this document? Is it a sacrosanct document that should be adhered to in every inch of the Founders' intentions, because if circumstances change they'd want us to pass an amendment? Is it a living document whose interpretation should be allowed to shift to match the present circumstances? Are we betraying the Founders by taking this action or that action, or should we even worry about what the Founders would say, because they intended for us to interpret every line of the Constitution as we see fit? And what the hell did the Founders intend, anyway? Are the Constitution's safeguards working or are our politicians exploiting fatal flaws in it, or do we just need to excersize those safeguards more? Or was the Constitution itself a perversion of the Revolution towards the goals of the elite? All these are questions that have vexed our society since before the ink was dry on the parchment.

In this series, I'll take a look at the real Constitution, trying to uncover just what the Founders really did intend, and how relevant those intentions are to modern society. I will be relying primarily on two sources, so I'll be eliding a big chunk of the scholarship on the matter, and you will likely complain to me and bring a host of other sources to my attention, no matter what side of the political divide you stand on. The first source will be James Madison's original notes on the convention, which open the door on the behind-the-scenes backroom dealing under which the Constitution took shape, and unveil why this or that clause was included in the way that it was. The second source will be "The Federalist Papers", written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. Though "The Federalist" was written as pro-Constitution propaganda, and so is more intended as a reassurance that the new government wouldn't become the same as the king people just overthrew than an actual expose of the Founders' intentions, it's still worth finding out exactly what people were led to expect from the Constitution, and the theory on which the new government was to operate as far as the people were concerned.

I will move through the Constitution a section at a time. Each post will open with the text of the section in question. That will be followed by my presentation of relevant discussion from Madison's notes or "The Federalist", accompanied by my analysis for what that means for our society. By the end, I hope all sides of the political debate have undergone some sobering realizations. Let's determine what this all-important document really is, once and for all.

The Convention was originally called merely to reform the Articles of Confederation. After some procedural matters, on May 29 Edmund Randolph of Virginia moved that "the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected & enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution", which were to advance the states' "common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare". Randolph's plan was a rather radical restructuring of the government, but regardless, the following day, Governeur Morris of Pennsylvania went further by raising three counter-motions, two of which were "that a Union of the States merely federal will not accomplish the objects proposed by the articles of Confederation, namely common defence, security of liberty, & genl. welfare" and "that no treaty or treaties among the whole or part of the States, as individual Sovereignties, would be sufficient." He defended the plan on the grounds that "in all Communities there must be one supreme power, and one only" (Madison's words).