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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : The Constitution of the United States of America

September 13, 1987

The text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights reproduced on these pages is accompanied by notes and commentary prepared for The Times by Prof. John Alexander, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, to discuss the major provisions and the personalities, issues and background that shaped the nation's charter.

Alexander, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1973 and joined the University of Cincinnati faculty in 1969, recently completed a book-length manuscript, "The Selling of the Constitutional Convention," for the documentary ratification project of the University of Wisconsin. He is also the author of "Render Them Submissive," a study of poverty in Philadelphia from 1760 to 1800 published by University of Massachusetts Press.


In 1937, during the sesquicentennial celebration of the Constitution, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that, "Like the Bible, it ought to be read again and again." He surely was right about studying the Constitution, but Roosevelt also said it "is an easy document to understand." On that point, he surely was wrong. The Constitution is not easy to understand.

The first difficulty in knowing what the delegates meant us to understand from their work is that the historical record of its creation is sparse and incomplete. Delegates worked under a self-imposed rule of secrecy; notes kept by Virginia's James Madison are almost the only comprehensive record of the deliberations, and even they are flawed.

More important, the Constitution sprang from a series of compromises. "We had Clashing Interests to reconcile," said Pierce Butler of South Carolina. Of necessity, the system created by the Constitution resulted, he said, "from a spirit of Accommodation to different Interests." And, to improve the Constitution's chances of being adopted, delegates deliberately utilized euphemistic or vague phrasing; as Maryland delegate Luther Martin admitted, the delegates "anxiously sought" to avoid words that Americans might find "odious."

Despite references to "Justice" and the "general Welfare," the Constitution represented a retreat from ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence, which declared that all people had an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The convention delegates were not willing to be so bold.

In part because of this--some critics opposed ratification on grounds that the Constitution contained no Bill of Rights--the subsequent fight over adoption of the Constitution was just that: a fight, a close, often-bitter struggle that lasted into the early summer of 1788. During that fight and afterward, the Founding Fathers themselves did not always agree with each other on what some parts of their handiwork meant.

Small wonder that sharp debates among their descendants have never ended, and almost certainly never will.


We the People of the United States, 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 to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The phrase "We the People of the United States" simply, elegantly proclaimed that the Constitution had a national, not a state, focus. Yet the delegates in Philadelphia were practical politicians, committed to the axiom that "politics is the art of the possible" and well aware of the difficulties they faced in winning popular acceptance of their work. Thus the Preamble was artfully crafted to win political points. Specifically, since the convention had been authorized to revise--not destroy--the Articles of Confederation, which had reserved ultimate power to the states, the framers knew they would be challenged on this profound shift in power. So they linked it to reassuringly familiar goals stressed in the Articles of Confederation--providing for the common defense, protecting liberties, and supporting the general welfare. Nor did they permit the word "national" to appear in the Preamble or anywhere else in the new document, although the delegates had freely acknowledged to one another throughout the convention that their first priority was to end the disarray of a state-dominated system.

Similarly, the references to creating a more perfect Union and insuring "domestic Tranquility" were reminders to their fellow Americans that the existing central government was powerless to suppress the horrors of Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts and was so insensitive to the needs of frontier settlers that Western farmers were on the brink of rebellion themselves over congressional plans to give away any American right to free passage on the economically vital Mississippi River.

Article I

Section 1

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

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