THERE is a common tendency to treat the Preamble of the United States Constitution as little more than excellent prose. I confess that I have been in that company until recent years. But the Preamble - 52 words in all - captures the essence of the Constitution and the utterly unique form of government it created: We, the people of the United States, in order to
form a more perfect Union,
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.
The collective ``We'' expresses what in 1787 was a wholly new concept of government. Except for the Mayflower Compact, signed by a handful of people on the decks of the Mayflower, no other charter of government had recognized so clearly that all legitimate political power flows from the people. The Magna Carta, often described as an ancestor of our Constitution, was a grant of power from the monarch to those below him and did not reach all the people. The Constitution, by contrast, was a grant of power by the people to a government they created.
The declared purpose, ``to form a more perfect union,'' is also far more than rhetoric. Before the Constitution the 13 states were joined together under the Articles of Confederaton - a loose alliance or ``firm league of friendship,'' as they called it. The absence of a national spirit was shown when New Jersey troops reporting to Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge resisted swearing allegiance to the US, saying, ``New Jersey is our country.''
But the victorious alliance soon began to fall apart.
Each of the states had its own currency, each could maintain its own army and navy, each could erect tariff barriers against neighboring states. Some states embroiled in disputes had actually threatened to send their troops into battle against other states. The Constitution was a blueprint for a central government that could solve these problems without resort to arms.
The second purpose listed in the Preamble is to ``establish justice.'' Considering the high importance the delegates and, in fact, all the people placed on a fair system of justice, one could wonder why establishing a system of justice was not the first stated objective.
But the delegates were realistic.
They recognized that any sound system of justice had to rest on a more perfect union than existed in 1787.
The significance of the next objective, to ``insure domestic tranquility,'' was demonstrated not long before the Philadelphia Convention by Shays's Rebellion. That episode began with protests by indebted farmers in western Massachusetts who wanted paper money and more-favorable foreclosure and bankruptcy laws. Shays's small army forced some of the state courts to close before it was defeated in early 1787. The rebellion made a great impression on the states at a time when many were still trying to decide whether to send delegates to Philadelphia. Here again, the words of the Preamble were not mere figures of speech. As there could be no workable system of justice without unity, there could be no unity without civil tranquillity.
The need to ``provide for the common defense'' of all the states was widely recognized, with British forces hovering to the North, and French and Spanish to the South and West. The Continental Congress lacked authority to impose taxes and raise armies. This had led directly to the needless deaths from malnutrition and freezing that George Washington's troops suffered at Valley Forge and throughout the war. It was imperative to have a government that would be strong enough to defend itself without depending on voluntary contributions from the states.
Looking to the future, the Preamble next promises to ``promote the general welfare.'' One of the important ways the Constitution did this was by breaking down existing trade barriers, thereby encouraging expanded commerce and manufacture.
By giving Congress the power to regulate trade among the states and with other nations, the Constitution paved the way for a ``common market'' a century and a half before that phrase came into our vocabulary - or Europe's.
Finally, the Preamble tells us that the Constitution is designed to ``secure the blessings of liberty'' for those who lived in 1787 and those who will follow us. The Constitution has done just that. Other nations in 1787 had great natural resources and industrious, talented, and ambitious citizens, as well as centuries of history and tradition, but the unique system created by the Constitution allowed every person to develop his or her God-given talents and abilities without being burdened by the heavy hand of arbitrary government or ancient traditions of class or station.
The bicentennial of the Constitution presents an ideal opportunity for ``We the people'' to give ourselves a history and civics lesson on our great charter.
Warren E. Burger, chairman, Commission on the Bicentenial of the Constitution, was chief justice of the United States from 1969 to 1986.