The Founding Fathers knew how to pour a lot into one sentence, and few sentences pack the punch of the preamble to the Constitution. It says:
“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.”
The first three words alone lay out the guiding principle for all governmental actions in the United States. Power rests with the people, not with a sovereign, a president or a legislative body. That was radical at the time it was written. It remains so in the context of world history.
The next phrase also is significant. The Constitution helps the nation form a “more perfect union.” Humans are not perfect, and neither is any government they form. But the Constitution enables people to form a government more perfect than under any other system.
The nation has long striven to live up to the ideals of its founding document, and even to the list of ideals that come next in the preamble. Often it has fallen short. For much of its history, people were denied rights because of their skin color or their gender. Even today, arguments rage over whether justice is applied equally, and over how victims of injustice can appropriately protest their grievances.
Domestic tranquility has at times been elusive for one reason or another, and the term “general welfare” has been debated and applied in ways far different than what the founders might have intended.
And yet the Constitution — the oldest surviving written governing document in the world — remains the gold standard. It lays out the ideal for a more perfect union. All that remains is to argue and debate over how best to conform ourselves to that ideal.
That’s far less easy than it may sound, but the Constitution is a remarkable guide to keep people on task.
Today is Constitution Day. It is perhaps the most under-celebrated day on the calendar, considering the enormous significance of what it honors. That may be a reflection of two things.
The first is understandable. Constitution Day was established only in 2004. It came about when Sen. Robert Byrd stuck it into a large spending bill, the kind of legislative tactic a lot of Americans wish didn’t happen. It rarely receives the pomp or attention of other special days.
The other is, however, unfortunate. It is that many Americans are woefully ignorant of what the Constitution contains.
Two years ago, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a nationwide poll that illustrated this ignorance. It found only 26 percent of respondents could name the three branches of government, and one-third could not name a single one. A little more than one-third could not name any of the five rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and 53 percent believed incorrectly that undocumented immigrants have no rights at all under the Constitution.
People cannot value or protect something about which they know nothing. Clearly, schools and other civic organizations have much to do to reverse this trend, which the policy center has tracked as getting worse over time.
Constitution Day is as good a time as any to attack this ignorance by dusting off a copy, or looking it up online, and giving it a read. The first sentence alone is worth the effort.
Editor’s note: A version of this editorial was published on Sept. 16, 2018.