Welcome to Constitution Day. My name is Dr. Kirt Wilson. I am the Interim Department Head and Associate Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University. Each year our department, under the direction of professor Rosa Eberly, devotes a day to consider the Constitution of the United States and its impact, not only here at home but also around the globe.
This year the students and faculty in Communication Arts & Sciences are considering the question, “What is The People’s Role in Sustaining Democracy?” Although the preamble of the Constitution doesn’t get a lot of attention, it remains a very important part of the document. It 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.”
What do these words mean and, especially, what qualities do they suggest the people of the United States should possess?
There are many answers to this question, of course, but I want to highlight just a few here. First, the preamble states, that the people have a purpose of creating a more perfect Union. Note that the text doesn’t say creating a “perfect union” but a “more perfect union.” The phrasing of “more perfect” is important, I think, because it suggests that perfection is not a single, static state. We know, for example, that the Constitution provides the means for its own amendment. It is not a “finished” document just as the nation is not a finished country. To be the people that the Constitution suggests we should be is, I would argue, to be willing to entertain the idea that we are on a journey toward perfection that has no end. Who constitutes “The People” will change over time and, furthermore, the Constitution will need to evolve to accommodate those changes.
Second, the preamble indicates that the purpose of the Constitution is, in part, to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and provide for the common defense. These three ideas, justice, peace, and defense are key guarantees that the Constitution is intended to provide for the people that it both protects and represents. There have been times in our nation’s history when justice, peace, and defense co-existed without much difficulty. There have been other times when tensions emerge. When, for example, the pursuit of justice led not to domestic tranquility but to domestic conflict. The abolitionist movement of the 19th Century, the fight for women’s equality in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the struggle for labor reform and workers rights, the anti-war movement of the 1960s or even the early 2000s are all examples when large segments of The People were so concerned about injustice that they disturbed the country’s tranquility. I do not personally believe that the Constitution’s framers envisioned a future with no internal or domestic conflicts existed. They were pragmatic politicians in addition to being political dreamers. What the Constitution does suggest is that we, The People, should be capable of managing our conflicts in such a way so that Justice, Tranquility, and the defense of our “shared” and personal autonomy are goals that we pursue.
Finally, because my time here is short, I want to speak briefly to two additional qualities that should be part of what makes up The People of these United States. The preamble states that the Constitution should promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity. These two ideas, to promote the general welfare and to secure liberty not only for ourselves for our posterity, for our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren are extremely important. You see, the Constitution envisions a People that is not solely out for their own self interests. In the moment, each week, month, and year we are supposed to be concerned for the welfare of others. That’s what the “general welfare” means. It means that, as a people, you and I are concerned about each other. Furthermore, you and I are concerned about the welfare of others who we don’t even know. We have an obligation to act, to vote, to deliberate, to make decisions in such a way that others benefit, the general welfare is increased. Furthermore, the preamble to the Constitution says that the “blessings,” the “positive benefits” of liberty are to be enjoyed not only in the moment but for generations to come. To be the people envisioned by the United States Constitution is to be a people who are concerned about the future. The people is NOT just those of us who are alive in September of 2022. The people includes those people who will come after us in the decades and hopefully centuries to follow. We have an obligation to make decisions today that protect not only the liberty but also the well-being and welfare of the people of tomorrow.
So, as you think about the Constitution today and as you reflect on what the Constitution means to you, I hope that you will also ask yourself these basic questions: What demands does the Constitution make of you? What sort of person should you be to ensure that democracy, the democracy outlined but not guaranteed by the Constitution, not just survives but actually thrives into the future?