Thoughts on the Constitution 3

The Preamble (continued)

The next stated purpose of the Constitution was to insure domestic Tranquility. This refers to the maintaining of peace and order both within and between the states. After the War for Independence there were uprisings in a number of states that threatened to undermine, if not to completely overthrow local government. Most of these disturbances grew out of protests over taxes levied by the states to pay their war debts. In some states taxes were higher after the war than before. Perhaps the most serious threat to domestic tranquility within a state came in the form of Shays’ rebellion. This was an armed uprising in central and western Massachusetts in 1786-1787, led by Daniel Shays, a farmer and veteran of the war. The rebellion began with protesters shutting down county courts in order to put a stop to hearings involving the collection of debts and taxes. When some of the leaders of the protest movement were arrested, the more radical members organized an armed force which was eventually defeated in June 1787, while the Philadelphia Convention was meeting.
It was not only such disturbances within the states, but also disputes between the states that caused the framers to fear. It might seem odd at this point in history to think of war breaking out between the states, but this was a matter of no little concern at the time. Alexander Hamilton dealt with the issue at length in Federalist 6, 7, 8, and 9, and James Madison in Federalist 10. The historical record shows that the attention they gave the matter was not at all unwarranted. Hamilton listed a number of potential reasons for states to go to war with each other if there were not a stronger federal government to arbitrate between them. Among these, he mentions disputes over:  borders between the states, claims to western territories, foreign trade (taxes on imports and exports), interstate trade, payment of the national debt, and enforcement of contracts between citizens of different states.
The fourth purpose of the Constitution was to provide for the common defence, that is, to defend the republic against aggression, whether from the neighboring Indian tribes or from the nations of Europe. This could be done far more effectively if the states acted together rather than separately. One of the great weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation was a woeful inefficiency in waging war. The Articles did not provide the federal government with the power to call out troops or to enforce requests for money from the states in order to fund the operations of war. As a result, the continental army continually found itself running dangerously short of men and supplies.
The next stated purpose of the Constitution was to promote the general Welfare. We will discuss this important (and much abused) clause more fully when we come to Article I, Section 8. The basic idea, however, is that one of the purposes the new federal government was to promote what tended to the good of the country as a whole, rather than what favored this or that state or region of the country, or this or that segment of the population.
The sixth and last purpose of the Constitution was to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. We find here an echo of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration the Founders had named “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable rights given to all men by their Creator. Further, they stated that governments were instituted among men “to secure these rights.” The language in the Declaration is very similar to what we find here in the Preamble. In the Declaration the Founders expressed their resolve to gain the blessings of liberty while in the Constitution they took measures to guard the liberty so recently won, and at so great a cost.

[1] The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, edited by Jonathan Elliot, 5 vols. (Philadelphia, PA:  Lippincott Company, 1891), vol. 3, p. 22. The debates are available to download for free at www,
[2] The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Convention Debates, ed. Ralph Ketcham (New York, NY:  The Penguin Group, 1986), p. 207
[3] The Debates in the Several State Conventions, p. 44
[4] See Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union:  Imperium in Imperia, 1776-1876 (Lawrence, KS:  University of Kansas, 2000)
[5] Federalist No. 39
[6] He means the Congress as it existed under the Articles of Confederation, in which each state had equal representation. The members of Congress under the Articles were chosen by the state legislatures, which is what the Constitution originally required in the Senate. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment, Senators were not elected by the people of the states as they are today; they were chosen by the state legislature. Compare Art. I, Sec. 3 and Amendment XVII.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Madison concludes by saying, “In its foundation it [the Constitution] is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the government are drawn, it is partly federal and partly national; in the operation of these powers, it is national, not federal; in the extent of them, again, it is federal, not national; and, finally, in the authoritative mode of introducing amendments, it is neither wholly federal nor wholly national.”
[9] The Debates in the Several State Conventions, vol. 3, p. 150
[10] Cited in Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, par. 488, n. 2, originally published in 1833 (


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