Know Your Constitution, Part One: We the People

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by Harvey Bluedorn

The first three words of the Constitution, We the people, have a greater significance than might be expected by those who do not know the history. The Constitution was drafted, not by the Continental Congress, but by a convention of delegates from each state; and it was ratified, not by the legislatures of each state, but by “a convention of delegates, chosen in each state by the people thereof.”

We the people does not mean all the people in one mass without the distinction of states, but the people of each state, state by state, as they ratified the Constitution. Hence the authority of our constitutional government is derived from the people, its form is designed by the people, and its purposes are established for the people.

It was not decided by the will of a king – that would be an absolute autocracy. It was not decided by the deliberations of legislatures or congress – that would border on an oligarchy. It was not decided by a general referendum – that would be a pure democracy. None of the above. When asked what kind of government they formed, Benjamin Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The principles of this republic can be summarized by the expression “government of, by, and for the people” and this summary may be explained by expressions lifted from the Declaration of Independence:

Government of the people: deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

Government by the people: founded on such principles and organized in such form as the people deem most likely to accomplish their safety and happiness.

Government for the people: established to secure unalienable rights with the blessings of liberty for the people and their posterity.

Forms of this expression are found elsewhere, most notably in the familiar Gettysburg Address, yet they derive from an even earlier source:

“This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people” (John Wycliffe, Prologue to the English translation of the Bible, 1384).

Our government was constructed to give we the people the final say. In America, in the political sense, sovereignty rests in the people, the government must answer to them, and they have authority to hold it accountable. Our founding fathers warned us that governmental authoritarianism would continually creep in to obscure, erode, invert, and pervert this republican structure.

“The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” “When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” — Thomas Jefferson

Power always tests its limits; once allowed outside its lawful limits, it is restrained only by how much power it can consume as it subtly corrupts everything it touches while shifting accountability away from itself. We the people who formed this government to serve us must continually assert our authority over it by exercising those lawful powers given to us by God and embedded in our institutions in order to continually bring government back within the restraints of its lawful constitutional borders. We the people are the guardians over the government we created.

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

1 Comment

  1. Wende

    Good point! The first three words are We the People, “People” being a proper noun, meaning a specific people. They did not mean We the Persons (artificial entities), and they did not just mean any people. But yes, We the People are the trustees of the government We created, that must be seen as totally contradistinctive from what acts as such today. The question is how do we occupy this position when most Americans don’t know (or want to know) that it exists?


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