Editor’s note: This is one in a series examining the Constitution and Federalist Papers in today’s America.
As we careen toward the end of the 2022 campaign season, a season now marked by one political party trying its best to disqualify the other party as fascists, it might be worthwhile to reflect on the preamble — or mission statement — of the Constitution and the collective and communal nature of the government that it created.
The preamble is simple, yet powerful: “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.”
With those 46 straightforward words, the Framers laid the cornerstone of the Constitution, announced the guiding philosophy of the document, and framed the governing structure it created.
Some believe that the Declaration of Independence with its persiflage about everyone being equal captures the core of the American experiment. But the simple reality is that the Constitution, and more specifically, the charge placed on the government in the preamble, is the more complete charter of governance and liberties of the United States.
The Declaration — written hastily by one person and approved in a handful of days by a wartime Congress — conceives of the role of government too narrowly, reducing it eventually to simply protecting the rights of the individual. While there is no doubt that is an essential role of government, there can also be no doubt that government is about much, much more.
Governments always must be about more. They are collective enterprises designed specifically to improve the prosperity (in all dimensions) of its constituent members. If it isn’t focused on that, why in the world would anyone create one?
A government focused solely on the distribution and protection of individual rights soon would become nothing more than a referee between competing claims of rights among the citizens. Indeed, in his book “The End of Liberalism: The Second American Republic,” the great scholar Theodore Lowi argued that the federal government has, in many respects, devolved to just that, with Congress parceling out benefits to interest groups and the administrative state and judiciary enforcing the arrangements.
The Framers themselves understood that government is and should be more than that. The Federalist Papers are littered with references to the various roles and purposes of government. Let’s just take one example. Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 23, argued for a national government: “… with the full power to levy troops; to build and equip fleets; … to raise revenues for an army and navy; and to otherwise manage the national interest.” Hardly the language of someone who is focused solely on individual liberties.
The Constitution itself makes clear the thought processes of those who wrote it and voted for it. It initially and boldly makes it clear that the Constitution is a compact between the citizens to do specific things through the mechanism of government.
To avoid confusion, the preamble lists those things. The national government is created to form a more perfect union; to establish justice within that more perfect union, and to ensure domestic tranquility. The Constitution is a communal commitment to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. Finally, and perhaps tellingly, securing the blessings of liberty — an important goal but not the only one — is the sixth and final plank of the platform.
Focusing on rights, to the exclusion of all else including responsibilities, is ultimately, too narrow a conception of what a nation and its citizens are and should be. We are more than individuals scrambling around trying to maximize our personal rights.
Successful nations are collections of people striving to improve their families, their friends, their neighborhoods, their communities and, through all of that effort, their nation. In short, creating, maintaining and improving a nation is a group effort.
The Constitution, and the values upon which it is based, have been our guiding star in that effort for almost 250 years. Its framework and those who have upheld its promise and potential have made the United States the strongest and most free nation in the history of the world.
Those who have taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend it — especially presidents — should think about that before they start us down a dark path of destroying the sense of shared enterprise and community upon which the government was created and now depends.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, co-hosts “The Unregulated” podcast. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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