“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.”
That’s the preamble to our Constitution, an introduction, a general summary, if you will.
I am but a lowly philosopher wandering my way through the complex web of this democratic republic. Our Constitution seems to be straightforward, but the buzz today about the Second Amendment makes the document look quite difficult. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
After years of debate on this single sentence, in 2008 the Supreme Court decided that the right to possess a firearm was not necessarily related to service in a militia. They reasoned, among other things, a right to self defense was clearly contained in the sentence.
What fascinates this wanderer is this preamble. What a beautiful sentence. Captured there is the vision each one of us has of our country. What’s not to understand? Shouldn’t any law meet the test of this, almost holy, statement? My philosophy sunk in deep waters when I discovered, unlike other countries, very few of our constitutional issues are settled by the preamble. In 1905, the Supreme Court decided the preamble is not the source of federal power or individual rights. All rights and powers are described in the text following the preamble.
The problem is that words change; they gather new or expanded meanings. They may drop old meanings. What does the word “militia” mean today?
In 1776, when King George got a little full of himself, some of our militias meant farmers should drop their pitchforks, grab their muskets and meet their neighbors at the town square. Today, it may mean three redneck buddies grabbing their shotguns after too much beer. Does the Army or the National Guard appropriately replace a “militia?” Should we continue to feel threatened by free-standing military as did many of the framers?
This philosopher says go back to the preamble. It says “In order to form a more perfect union” Does a militia (whatever it might mean,) or do our armed services make the union more perfect? Scholars maintain the “more perfect union” speaks of the colonies moving from the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution.
Barack Obama’s speech in his first presidential campaign spoke of creating “a more perfect union” whenever the country came together to right a wrong, such as slavery.
Conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia updated Second Amendment wording “to keep and bear arms” to not necessarily include military style weapons, or to carry any weapon into a school or public park. We needed a modern setting for those old words, so why can’t “a more perfect union” receive the same type setting?
What makes our union more perfect today? Would the framers object to an update? In what way does the keeping and bearing of arms further perfect our union and “promote the general welfare”? Does the idea of keeping and bearing arms promote the general welfare? Would George Washington complain about this use of the preamble?
When he sent the newly penned Constitution to Congress and the president of the Congress, George Washington also sent a letter which includes, “In all our deliberations on this subject, we kept steadily in our view that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union, in which is involved our prosperity, felicity, safety -- perhaps our national existence.”
It seems Washington’s words mean what follows the preamble must meet the test of the preamble. It is the heart and soul of the Constitution, and just might be useful in measuring our laws. Shouldn’t it guide us with gun laws?
Who knows? May the scholars and politicians find solace in their quarrels. For me, I will continue to wonder as I wander.
Tom Scholl is a resident of Macon. He writes every other week for The Telegraph.