American democratic ideals, as presented in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, seem so clearly stated that one assumes they are also easily understood. How could one misinterpret the Declaration of Independence with its equal and inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? And how could one misinterpret the preamble to the US Constitution which explains that the Constitution was written 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,” for their time and for ours.
This is not a trivial issue. The preambles to both of our major foundational documents provide an important lens to focus our interpretation of the founders’ ideals. So what did those preambles mean in the 18th century? Many citizens do not know that there has been a rhetorical shift in some of these words and phrases since 1776 and 1787. One result of this rhetorical change is that the United States has moved away from the ideals of its founders.
Three of the six aspirations in the preamble to the Constitution do not seem to have shifted over time. Governments at all levels may sometimes have difficulty actually providing domestic tranquility, but there is virtual unanimity on its necessity. In addition, there are many disagreements on specific defense policies but general agreement on the importance of this federal government function. “A more perfect Union” also belongs in this category. What is “a more perfect Union?” Should the national government have more power? Should the states have more power than they currently have? It should be noted that the Constitution was proposed and adopted in order to provide a stronger central government.
Three of the six aspirations in the preamble to the Constitution do not seem to have shifted over time.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was a very loose group of thirteen semi-sovereign nations. This disunity meant that the national government was unable to deal with domestic tranquility issues (e.g., Shay’s Rebellion), and it was unable to promote economic justice (some states were not paying their share of debts incurred in the war for independence; this fiscal irresponsibility severely hampered American trade with Europe). This stronger union enabled more rapid economic development than would have occurred had we remained semi-sovereign states. It is clear today that the 1789 Constitution made it possible for the national government to become very powerful. Whether or not it has become more powerful than the founders intended is not the subject of this blog.
The other three aspirations have changed somewhat since the 18th century. The idea of establishing justice is generally shared today, but many people limit this to the criminal and civil law and ignore the ethical aspect of justice that was so important to our founders. This is not a question of a word changing meaning since it has both meanings today, but it is significant that the ethical emphasis of our founders has been virtually replaced by the legal meaning of justice. This has had an enormous impact on economic policy; that impact has been magnified by changes in the meaning of liberty.
Welfare had a highly positive meaning for the founders; the general welfare meant the common good.
“Promote the general Welfare” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty” have significantly different meanings today; equal opportunity was central to our founders’ understanding of these words. But, for decades “welfare” has had highly negative connotations; it is almost a curse word for some people. One only need mention “welfare queen” and “welfare fraud” to raise the hackles of many hard-working citizens. Of course, the irony here is that most welfare fraud is committed by providers, not needy citizens.
Welfare had a highly positive meaning for the founders; the general welfare meant the common good. The new federal government should improve opportunity for all. This is another way of saying the government should promote “equality in the pursuit of happiness,” one of the most important aspirations of the Declaration of Independence. This was not a new concept, as the following examples (only three of many) show. Long before independence, Massachusetts had a requirement that a public school must be established before a town would be recognized. Early in the republic, both national and state governments played a large role in the economy, thereby helping everyone. Later, the federal government’s Homestead Act provided economic opportunity for tens of thousands of Americans. The basic principle behind such policies was equal opportunity.
That meaning of welfare leads us back to liberty. Our founders valued individual liberty within a community context; they had a both/and understanding of liberty. The individual is important but is nothing without strong community. That meaning has been submerged by laissez-faire individualism, which the founders would not have appreciated. They would have seen it as a narcissistic contradiction of their ideal in the Declaration of Independence: an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals today, pursuing happiness without regard to others, undermine equal opportunity. Currently, large numbers of citizens are individualistic profit maximizers, paying little attention to social values; this destroys the individuals-within-communities balance sought by the founders. This laissez-faire distortion of liberty usually involves significant injustice, both in the ethical sense and the legal sense. (White collar and corporate crime are far more common than people believe, and far costlier than “common” crime.)
Combining the equal opportunity meaning of the “general welfare” with the founders’ concept of liberty and with their belief in ethics (justice) gives us a concise formula for an inclusive national policy: equality, liberty and justice. Rhetorical shifting of the founders’ terms has fundamentally distorted this nation. The United States would be stronger politically, economically and socially if we returned to their ideals of equality, liberty and justice. Ironically, this would also be consistent with the market ideals of the “father of capitalism,” Adam Smith, whose formula for a wealthy nation was also “equality, liberty and justice.”