We, the People: A radical idea that must persist

Constitution Week, which we celebrate this week, is our best opportunity to re-ask the question that has haunted our nation from its inception:  Who are “we”? The first question the Framers of our Constitution had to answer was one of the hardest: Who matters? Who or what would be the source of legitimate power in their new nation?  

Because it has become a commonplace of American political culture that legitimacy is conferred by “We the people,” it is easy to forget how radical that idea seemed when it was included in the preamble to our Constitution. It is no exaggeration, however, to say that in adopting that language, the Framers of our Constitution were turning their backs on most of human history, in which power has been exercised by brute force, attired in royal robes, propped up with golden carriages and glittering pomp, and anchored in concepts such as “the divine right of kings” or “obedience to the Fuhrer.”  

“The people,” in such systems, exist to support the king or queen, the emperor or caliph, the Fuhrer or the General Secretary, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin, not the other way around. They are less citizens than subjects, taxpayers in peacetime, cannon fodder during wartime. They are expendable, especially if they criticize the government. 

Not so in America, at least not any more, concluded Thomas Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence. Millions of people have staked their lives in the years since on this rejection of absolutist rule. By proclaiming the “self-evident” truths “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” the Declaration established that our fundamental rights are not conferred upon us by a godlike monarch or a beneficent (if we are lucky) state, but are our birthright as human beings.             

So, with apologies to “Downton Abbey” fans, our Founding Fathers did not begin the Constitution with the royal “we.” But it really wasn’t clear at all when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was adopted exactly who counted as “We the people.” A diligent researcher, bent on confining the meaning of our Constitution to the realities of 18th century America — we can call this the “hardening of the articles” approach — might point out that the only people who counted back then were free adult white males who owned property, were relatively wealthy, were literate and were citizens. 

Indeed, the “we white males” interpretation has been nothing if not persistent. White male primacy was the foundation of the Dred Scott decision, and was enshrined in the Constitution of the Confederate States. Its enduring power can be inferred also from the various restrictions placed on the access of others to voting. Thus, attempts have been made to limit voting to those who hold real property (and are white males), to those who are male (excluding women and grudgingly including black males, but restricting the black males’ exercise of power by running separate schools that kept them illiterate and impoverished and then requiring them to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax). The Constitution has been amended repeatedly to make clear that slavery was abolished and that “we, the people” is meant to include African Americans, women  and young people.    

What makes our nation unique — its source of greatness in the world — is that the United States of America is not an ethnicity but an idea that government can be formed of, by and for its people. That idea has been under siege for some time now; both Russia’s Putin and the Chinese government openly question its viability, and point to our political dysfunction as evidence that our idea is, in Putin’s terms, “eating itself.”  

It is true that we have done a poor job of stewarding our sense of community, acting as though effective governing is self-executing, requiring no compromise. But we would do well to recall that an alternative for our Constitution’s preamble was “We, the States.” The federal government was, to many, a necessary evil, existing at the sufferance of the states, which decided to cede certain powers — printing money, raising armed forces, negotiating treaties — in the interest of a viable central authority, while retaining others, such as domestic law enforcement and education. 

In fact, sentiment was strong at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 for beginning the document with “We, the States”; this formulation was included in an original draft. In the course of deliberations, however, Gouverneur Morris, whose elder brother Lewis had signed the Declaration, edited the preamble, replacing “We, the States” with “We, the people.”  

Morris and others argued, hearkening back to the Declaration of Independence, there is a deeper, more fundamental sovereignty that underlies not just the national government’s powers but the powers that the states themselves exercise. That foundational sovereignty lay with us, with individual people as a result of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are fundamental to our humanity. Hence, the conclusion that political legitimacy in our form of government is conferred by “We, the People.” This was something new in the world: in Gouverneur Morris’s terms, “a Government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind.” 

Its course would not be easy; much of our history since has been occupied in arguing over the question, “Who are ‘We, the people’?” It would take a Civil War with more than 600,000 deaths to vindicate the language that Morris had inserted into the Constitution’s preamble.   

But words matter. When Jefferson used the general term “All men are created equal,” he was rejecting the notion of state primacy and at the same time leaving open to expanding moral progress what categories of human beings would be included. Similarly, Gouverneur Morris’s substitution of “We, the people” for “We, the States” in our Constitution’s preamble laid the foundation for saving the union by setting people free. 

Our Constitution’s preamble enabled President Lincoln, four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, to stand at Gettysburg on the ground of the bloodiest battle in our history and to sanctify our nation’s abiding commitment “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”            

We, the people. Words to live by and, if necessary, to die for.

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

Tags American political philosophy Declaration of Independence federal government Gouverneur Morris US Constitution Vladimir Putin We the People Xi Jinping

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