Total Understanding

We are more than just the sum of our parts.  At least I’d like to think so….it would be really awkward if people treated my right arm as if it were the be all, end all of my existence.

“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.”

~ Preamble to the United States Constitution


Context and completeness are crucial.  As a historian, it’s always really interesting to hear people quote short bits from a person or a document.  This is because we spend egregious amounts of time analyzing entire documents to ensure that we are in fact understanding the entire point of what’s being said.  Plus, it’s pretty easy to selectively quote and make anyone say anything if you’re really trying to.  This is why the whole of something is so important.  The poor Constitution gets the worst sort of that kind of abuse these days.  People are so very eager to point to the one sentence justifying their argument that they don’t even bother to read and understand the rest of it.  Because let’s get serious here, the Constitution is a hell of a lot bigger than just a list of things we have a right to…it’s an entire framework for our government and society.  Not only that, it’s a framework with a guiding philosophy that was important enough that the founding fathers codified it as part of the Constitution itself.  The entire point of our Constitution and our government is written into those words.  Everything else that follows flows from there, so maybe we should start reading and thinking about it from the beginning for once.

After all, the founding fathers were very careful when they wrote the Constitution.  There’s a good reason why some of it is very specific and some of it is broad.   There was even a good reason for not including the Bill of Rights in the original version, the intent was that any right not specifically given to the federal government was reserved to the people and the states.  They changed their mind because a few stubborn states thought that wasn’t good enough for fundamental rights people had fought the Revolution over, so the Bill of Rights was drafted as part of a deal to get the original Constitution ratified.  The Preamble is an essential piece of the Constitution as well, even though it doesn’t contain a single right or rule.  It tells us why the Constitution was written, and what it was designed to do.  This means that every other single part of the Constitution, from the way the bicameral legislature is designed to the right to free speech, is meant to aid or fulfill these goals.  And if we really think about it, the other parts of the Constitution do just that.  Much of it is very procedural: this is when the federal government will meet, this is what the various parts of the federal government are responsible for, and how they should function.  Everything from the qualifications for federal office and the order of succession is covered in the Constitution and its subsequent amendments.  There are broader strokes there as well.  And especially with the amendments, there are many that were specifically added in order to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as the Preamble puts it.

Our Constitution is bigger than a single right.  Our Constitution is about ensuring that everyone gets to have and use their freedom.  It guarantees that the government, while given powers, is also limited in their use so as not to oppress the people.  It also includes occasionally placing limitations on what a single citizen can do with their rights in order to protect the rights of another citizen.  So all the people out their getting on their soapboxes about the inviolability of one single right have entirely missed the part of the deal where their rights only go as far as their intersection with another’s rights.  And more importantly, they’ve also missed the total purpose behind the entire Constitution as a whole.  Good governance and fundamental freedom doesn’t stem from just one right, but many.  As the Declaration of Independence so eloquently states what the Constitution codifies into law, our government is really all about “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  And there’s so much more to that than one sentence in one text, even a text as importance as the Constitution itself.


Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Transcribed text of the United States Constitution

Courtesy of the US Archives

Leave a Comment ↓

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: