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Constitution Mondays and Preamble

I recently finished the book:

Jacoby, Susan. 2008. The age of American unreason. New York: Pantheon Books.

While I was mostly impressed with it, I don’t plan to do a book review of it. But there was one passage about the US Constitution that spurred me to action on page 299:

“More than a third were unable to list any First Amendment rights; 42 percent think that the Constitution explicitly states that “the first language of the United States is English”; and 25 percent believe that Christianity was established by the Constitution as the official government religion. The young are even more ignorant than their parents and grandparents. About half of adults–but just 41 percent of teenagers–can name the three branches of government.”

The 1997 survey that Ms. Jacoby refers to can be found at http://ratify.constitutioncenter.org/CitizenAction/CivicResearchResults/NCCNationalPoll/index.shtml.

Being a good former government documents librarian, I think one way to fight this level of ignorance is for more of us docs librarians and other civic minded people to expose people to the Constitution. Just reprinting the Constitution and its amendments all at once would be too eye-glazing for words. So I’m establishing a new feature called “Constitution Monday” where I will reproduce the Constitution section by section. I will be using the following resources from the National Archives for the text:

Transcript of US Constitution
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html

Transcript of Bill of Rights (First 10 Amendments)
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html

Amendments 11-27
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html

Sometimes I may post some brief personal commentary about a section or amendment, but many weeks I may simply let the sections speak for themselves. After the posting of Amendment 27, I’ll suggest some resources for Constitutional commentary and analysis from people and institutions way more qualified than me to talk about Constitutional law.

Before I begin, my apologies to people who are already familiar with our Constitution. I suspect many of my readers are familiar with the text. But maybe some of you aren’t and maybe search engines will bring some people here who might not make it to the National Archives web site.

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We start with the Preamble, which many people probably do know thanks to ABC’s “School House Rock.” Read the following and see if you start hearing a dancable melody:

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.

You can think of this as the mission statement for the writers of the Constitution. Yes, people had mission statements as far back as 1787.

One thing that strikes me about the Preamble is that it is a “We” paragraph and not a “Me” paragraph. Common defense. General welfare. Not so much of “Every man for themselves” or “I’ve got mine, to heck with you.”

Anything strike you about the preamble? Leave a comment. And if you like the concept of this series, PLEASE STEAL IT! The more of us bloggers of all political persuasions start sharing out our Founding document, the better the nation will be. Think of it as a civics twilight bark or Beacons of Gondor to help our fellow citizens understand the Constitution.

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2 Responses

  1. Curses, Alaskan Librarian! You beat me to the point I love the best: words like “union”, “common”, and “general”. Too many believe that the Constitution should be interpreted only in favor of individual rights and only secondarily in favor of common good or collective self-determination.

    The other point I find noteworthy is that it begins with “We the People” — when, in fact, only fifty-five delegates attended. My history here is weak, but I suspect that “the People” were not so involved as the preamble would make them out to be.

  2. Hi Paul,

    I don’t think “We the People” is so far-fetched. Maybe it should be “We, the white male inhabitants of the United States”, but we’re talking about more than the 55 delegates. Remember the the Constitution needed to be ratified by the states. That means the legislature in each state needed to agree to the Constitution. These legislatures were in turn elected by those eligible to vote — those white male inhabitants I mentioned earlier. But in the sense that the people’s representatives voted to accept the new constitution, “We the People” makes sense to me.

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