What Ever Happened to We the People?Roundup
tags: Founding Fathers, American History, constitutional history
Adam Carrington, assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College
If people think of the Constitution at all, they tend to focus on other parts. When I ask my students to name a part of the document, they often point to some portion of the Bill of Rights or to the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery.
But the preamble does more than add rhetorical flourish to our governing document. It concisely declares America’s answers to the most fundamental questions of political life—every one of which is contested today.
Consider its opening and closing: “We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Every political community has to decide who is ultimately sovereign. Our commitment to popular rule stems from a belief in the inherent equality of all human beings. As equals, the only just rule is self-rule. In so committing, America was one of the first countries to reject the rule of the few elites, building on an English commitment to freedom. But unlike Britain’s customary constitution, “We the People” would record the structures and conditions of our rule, setting them in stone as a standard of liberty.
The preamble’s middle portion articulates the ends that popular rule serves. Again, there are many possible answers. Ancient Sparta pursued glory through war, and in its later years Rome sought empire. Many states since have chased the same things.