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The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution

Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center in conversation with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute.  Created by Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute none with Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center and we're discussing the Constitution of the United States Jeff how does it start what does the preamble say 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 now let's look at it real carefully those first three words are kind of amazing even though they seem kind of normal we the people in that rather unusual to have a document that sets up a nation in which the rights come from we the people it was the central innovation of the United States Constitution under the British system it was the King not the people who were sovereign and the American innovation was to transfer sovereignty to the people themselves but at the convention there was a big debate which people were sovereign was it we the people of the several states of Massachusetts and South Carolina and so forth as anti-federalists insisted or was it we the people of the United States as a whole who were sovereign as it happened that debate the central intellectual debate of the Constitution was preempted by governor Morris who drafted his preamble the original draft had said we the people of the states of South Carolina Massachusetts and so forth listed all the stage yes but guna Morris didn't know which states would actually ratify so he condensed it into this we the people of the United States really the first time we call ourselves the United States in this preamble a remarkable achievement remember the Articles of Confederation which this constitution had been designed to supplement was a confederation of individually sovereign states but the Constitution created a constitution of the united states and it says that these are the reasons we're doing it to form a more perfect union establish justice and let's look at this incredible phrase that says promote the general welfare when somebody asks whether a law is constitutional or not can they invoke the phrase promote the general welfare or is this really sort of clearing the throat you know you can't invoke the phrase before the US Supreme Court because the court held in 1905 in a case called Jacobson and Massachusetts that the preamble is not a source of federal power or individual rights instead all the rights and powers are set out of the amendments that follow so although this is tremendously important in declaring the general purposes that led the framers to repudiate the Articles of Confederation and establish the Constitution it doesn't seem to be legally enforceable so what is the point of this preamble the point is that the Articles of Confederation were a terrible failure this loose confederation of sovereign states have been unable to make war to pay the war debts or to suppress things like debtor rebellions like shays rebellion Massachusetts which so alarmed the framers because it seemed to exalt the rights of debtors over creditors so it was in order to avoid the vices of the articles as James Madison call them that the framers those convened in Philadelphia to establish a federal government energetic enough to make war and tax but still constrained enough to protect individual rights Jeffrey Rosen thank you will go on to article1 in just a moment