Magic words: US Constitution, 1787

Happy 230th year to you!  Pleased to be introduced to Schoolhouse Rock educational videos from the 1970s, and was again stirred by the words of the Constitution’s preamble:

“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 language is old, but it perfectly captures why and how we need government.  Similarly, the  4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence starts with ‘self-evident’ truths that we were all born equal, with a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights.  Both documents reflect Enlightenment thinking, in contrast to the traditional ideas like divine right of kings.

I especially like the idea of there ‘more perfect Union’.  This refers to the Articles of Confederation that were replaced by the Constitution, but also to the idea of continuous improvement of the already good.  I am driven by this idea of a better union between peoples to better serve the needs of not just people, but all sentient beings and the planet itself.

Following this preamble, the seven articles of the Constitution spell out the roles of the three branches of government and the checks and balances to their powers.   The Constitution crafters were familiar with Aristotle’s account of how democracy leads to the emergence of demagogues and tyrants.  So, they paid special attention to limiting the President’s powers.  The President is the Chief of the Armed Forces, but it’s Congress who decides whether to go war.  And apart from war, the President’s role is largely ceremonial.  For example, the President must sign a bills before it becomes law, but it is Congress that formulates the law.  The President’s power can refuse to sign it, but the veto can be overturned by Congress, as explained by this Schoolhouse Rock video

And yet, over the past 230 years, and especially since the 1930s under Roosevelt who developed much of the machinery of state, there has been an increasing concentration of power in the President as the executive of that machinery of state.

Yet, this is hardly the worst problem with US government.  Even thought the current incumbent is highlighting some of the risks associated with the President’s power’s ability to launch nuclear missiles.


Following the 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress passed the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777.  Ratification by all thirteen states did not occur until 1 March 1 1781.

The US Constitution was signed on 17 Sep 1787 to create a federal state out of the 13 states.  It was ratified in 1788, and became law in 1789.  That same year the first elections for President and Congress were held.




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