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March 2017 Policy Study, Number 17-5


A Commentary on the American Constitution


Introduction - Part 1



Our Founding Fathers were a persistent lot.  Their drive and determination to establish a government “as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” was not about to be ended by the lack of complete success in their initial attempt.  Undeterred, they established a new constitution.  Its preamble reads:  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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” (Emphasis added). 


Again, they were quite straightforward in stating the purpose of the new government.  Its primary and overriding objective was to provide security for the individual, both from internal and external threat.  The use of the word “security” here is in a restricted sense.  Their list of objectives indicates that their concern was the unjust acts (torts or wrongs) and actual physical harm that can befall the individual, not the temporal needs and wants that the free, sovereign, and independent individual can and should provide for himself.  (An examination of further documents, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers among others, will also show it was also designed to protect the individual from the threat of government itself.)


As for the clause, “promote the general welfare,” the first thing to consider is that the word "promote" bears an entirely different definition than the word "provide," which tends to be the generally accepted connotation of this clause today.  One should probably suspect their true objective was to provide an atmosphere of equal opportunity for prosperity (general welfare), rather than a governmentally enforced condition of equal result.  To this end, they wrote a constitution that established a republican form of government for themselves and guaranteed the same for the sovereign states, enumerated the obligations and limitations of the federal government, and instituted the doctrine of the separation of powers.  Why did they take such pains?  As Thomas Jefferson stated, “In questions of power, let us hear no more of trust in men, but rather bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”


The power of the Constitution was intended to bind the federal government down — to fundamentally restrict its ability to usurp our liberties.  It was not to be an implement used to centralize power at the national level and thus be used to subdue the sovereign states and the sovereign individuals who dwell therein to its will.


That we may form a correct judgment on this subject, it will be proper to review the several powers conferred on the government of the Union; and that this may be the more conveniently done they may be reduced into different classes as they relate to the following different objects:  1. Security against foreign danger; 2. Regulation of the intercourse with foreign nations; 3. Maintenance of harmony and proper intercourse among the States; 4. Certain miscellaneous objects of general utility; 5. Restraint of the States from certain injurious acts; 6. Provisions for giving due efficacy to all these powers.  (Federalist Papers, No. 41).


James Madison, considered by most to be the Father of the Constitution, penned the preceding paragraph in 1787.  In any case, it is not out of place to consider Mr. Madison an authority on this subject.  His writing is reasonably clear in relating his vision of what he believes this document means as regards the relationship between the individual and the federal government and what functions this government is to provide for the citizens of the new nation.  If he were to visit us today, what would he think of our current government?  Although he would probably agree our government is attempting to provide for the obligations enumerated in the Constitution, it is undoubtedly the case that he would be more than a little unhappy with the scope of the powers our current central government has expropriated from the states and individuals and appropriated unto itself.  Furthermore, I have no doubt he would strongly proclaim this current state of affairs a thoroughly dangerous impediment to continued liberty.


As we proceed through the Articles and Sections of the Constitution, bear in mind the areas of legitimate interest Madison proposed to fall under the scope of this instrument, and also that a purpose of the instrument was to define the rules under which government would labor and under which it would be limited.  Compare your reading of the instrument to the current actions of government and the scope of interest government exercises under this instrument today. 




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