Today, we read those words and don't give them much thought but to those who wrote the preamble they were very deliberate in their choice of words and they had a very specific reason in mind for using them. If we were to gain a clearer understanding of the purpose of those words, we could solve a lot of the arguments that are currently being debated about the proper role of the federal government in its relationship to the states and vice versa.
In school we were taught that in the beginning of our country there were thirteen colonies and although all the colonists were Englishmen, each of the thirteen colonies governed themselves, with each of them having their own constitution and their own form of government. The one thing they had in common was their love of freedom and as England kept taking steps to infringe on that freedom, eventually the thirteen states agreed to work together to decide how to respond to the intolerable acts that the English Parliament continued to impress upon the Americans.
The body of men who came together from each state to discuss this problem was called the Continental Congress and in 1776 they agreed to make a bold declaration, informing England "that these united colonies are, and of a right ought to be free and independent states." The term "independent states" meant that each colony now considered themselves a "state" and a state is an independent country ruled over by their own government which is independent of any other government. What this meant was that each state not only declared themselves to be free from the rule of England but each of them also considered themselves independent of all other forms of governments as well. The only government that Americans recognized to rule over them was their own state government.
Yet the citizens of these newly declared states had to work together in order for their declaration of independence to have any hope of succeeding, therefore they formed an alliance or a confederacy with one another and the contract that spelled out the rules by which these thirteen independent states would work together was called The Articles of Confederation. However, even throughout the war with England, but especially after America had won her independence, a number of disputes arose between the states that threatened to destroy the unity which had held the thirteen colonies together.
As it became obvious that the Articles of Confederation were not adequate to preserve the confederacy between the states and to prevent the states from becoming enemies to one another, there were some who felt they had to find a more perfect way to unite these squabbling states in a way that would be just and fair for everyone and which would also ensure that they could all live together in tranquility and peace. The purpose of the newly proposed Constitution of 1787 was to unite all the states so that they became one nation rather than thirteen separate nations.
This is why on the Great Seal of the United States is the motto "E pluribus unum." The word "pluibus" is Latin for the English word "plurality" or "many." The word "unum" is the Latin word for the number one. Thus "e pluribus unum" is translated as "out of many, one" or "many uniting into one," or "a plurality becoming one."
Of course, if all the states were to become one nation, then there had to be one supreme government over all of them, instead of there being thirteen separate and independent governments and that was one of the greatest areas of debate during the Constitutional Convention. The states demanded that they retain their right of sovereignty while others argued that unless the states gave up some of their sovereignty America would soon be inhabited by thirteen small countries who could not get along with one another.
The solution that was finally agreed upon was that the central government would have limited and defined duties, while each state would be able to govern themselves as they chose except in those areas where the central government had been given authority over the states. This form of division of duty is called a federal system of government.
At the federal level there were to be three branches of government - legislative, executive, and judicial - where each branch had specific duties that the other two did not have, yet they all had to work together in order for the government to fulfill its job. In this way the legislative branch could not control the executive or judicial branches nor could the executive control the legislative and judicial branches, nor could the judicial branch control the other two branches.
Most high school students understand this concept but what many people don't realize is that this same system exists between the states and the federal government. Each has their own rights and duties that cannot be controlled by the other. In other words, there are things that the states are not allowed to do because they are the exclusive duty of the federal government and the same is true of the federal government concerning the states, yet they are required to work together in order to make many states into one nation. And to make this union more perfect, the Constitution in article III, Section 2, clause 1 declares that whenever a dispute should arise between two or more states or between a state and the federal government, the Supreme Court is to be the arbiter and resolver of the dispute.
It was this system that would make the union of the states more perfect, ensure justice, and preserve the tranquility between the states.
However, when the Constitution was first written, it was merely a proposal and no state was forced to adopt it. Instead, each state held their own convention with representatives selected by the people of each state rather than having the state's legislators decide whether to ratify the newly proposed Constitution or not. That is why the preamble to the Constitution reads, "We the people of the United States," rather than "We the states of America." In other words, it was the people of the states who ratified the constitution, not the states themselves. What the Constitution did was give sovereignty to the people rather than to the states. That is a distinction that is often lost when discussing the Constitution.
Within a short time, all thirteen independent states freely ratified the Constitution and when they did they each gave their word and made a pledge of allegiance to the Constitution to live by the terms, rules, and procedures laid out in it. As such, when the people of each state made that commitment, they entered into a legally binding contract with each other and with the central government. That agreement, like all other contracts, takes on the force of law and holds all parties to it liable for abiding by the terms which they freely agreed to.
When the Constitution was ratified, those thirteen states were no longer totally free and completely independent of one another because they each gave up some of their sovereignty for the purpose of being one nation. As stated earlier, the purpose of the Constitution was to help our country become "a more perfect union " and the only way that could happen is if all the states worked together with each other and with the central government.
In time, the Federal government purchased new land and from that territory new states were created, but it was the federal government who created them. As such, it was the federal government who set the rules by which each of these new states would be allowed into the union of states. Just as it had been done originally, it was the people of those states who agreed to the rules set forth by the federal government and when they accepted those rules, they also agreed to abide by the rules set forth in the Constitution, just as the first thirteen states had done.
For over seventy years this system worked well to meld all the growing number of states into one cohesive union of states thereby keeping our country The United States of America. But then, in December 1860 and January 1861 eleven southern states decided they no longer wanted to be part of their native country and seceded from the Union to form their own nation.
The question that has been hotly debated ever since is whether these states had a constitutional right to secede. Those who say they did contend that each of these states were sovereign and could do as they please. Others argue that the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution gives them this right because the Constitution does not specifically give the federal government the authority to prevent them from seceding. Still others say that just because their forefathers ratified the Constitution, doesn't make their pledge binding on future generations. Therefore, it is said, that each state has the right to continue abiding by the Constitution or terminating its obligation as it so chooses.
As stated earlier, when each state joined the union of states, they entered into a contract with each of the other states and the federal government that bound them to obey the rules set forth in the Constitution. When two parties enter into an agreement, whether written or confirmed by a handshake, they have entered into a legally binding contract which is subject to the rules of law.
When one party violates the terms of what they have agreed to, the other party has the right to sue for redress in a court of law and unless there is a legal reason why the party who has violated their agreement should not be sued, the court will find them guilty of a breach of contract. If the contract between parties is to be legally terminated it must be agreed to by all parties to the contract. If one of the parties does not agree to ending the contract, then the contract remains legally in force.
The same principle applies to those states who have made a pledge of allegiance to the Constitution. At the time they made that oath of loyalty, they entered into a contract to obey the rules set forth in that document. For a state to say that they can break that promise anytime they want for whatever reason they want, simply because they are sovereign is no different than an individual (who is himself sovereign in his own right) deciding not to honor a contract they've entered into on the grounds that they are a citizen of a land that gives them the freedom to do what they want.
The stated purpose of the Constitution is "to form a more perfect union." When the Southern states seceded from the North, they violated the intent of the Constitution by breaking apart the union of states that the Constitution was meant to establish and preserve. For that reason alone, secession is an illegal act on the part of a state because it runs contrary to the express purpose of the Constitution to which they have pledge their allegiance.
To illustrate this principle, the law states that it is illegal to steal property from someone. Therefore, someone cannot steal property from someone else and claim that they are following the law. In the same way, a state cannot secede from the Union, thereby dissolving the union that exists between the states, and still claim that the Constitution allows them the right to do it. Secession does the very opposite of what the Constitution seeks to establish.
But the Constitution also states that its purpose is "to establish justice." Under the Articles of Confederation, when there was a dispute between states, there was no way to resolve the issue because there was no independent court system to which both parties could appeal to. As such, justice could not be established. But that problem was resolved in the Constitution which provides for the Supreme Court to be the arbiter of disputes.
When a state decides it wants to secede from the union, it's because of some complaint which that state has with either the federal government or with another state. In that case, the Constitution clearly sets forth the manner in which such a complaint can be justly dealt with. When the states agreed to be part of the Union they also agreed to resolve their disputes the way that the Constitution provides for - in federal court.
But when a state decides to secede without going through the constitutional process for resolving disputes, they are violating their oath to support and defend the constitution. Therefore, they are committing an illegal act because they are breaking the pledge they made to the Constitution which they voluntarily agreed to abide by.
But there is more to this than merely violating the law. Each state has the right to make laws pertaining to those who live within its borders but they do not have a right to pass laws that affect those who are living in other states. Because they are united as one country, all the states have agreed to work together in unison, but when one state decides to secede from the union it does not do so in a vacuum.
Just as no man is an island so also no state is an island. To secede from the union is to break the ties that bind us together and that cannot be done without causing harm to other states in multiple ways. When that happens, then justice must be meted out because someone has been hurt.
If someone legally wants to break their contract, they must first get the consent of those to whom they have made the contract or they go to court and have the legal system invalidate the contract. That is only just and fair. But when a state decides to secede they don't ask permission from the Union and neither do they take their complaint to the Supreme Court. Instead they unilaterally break the contract on their own accord without any thought of the harm they are causing to others. That is not the definition of justice nor does it support the reason why the Constitution was created. Instead, it subverts the purpose of the Constitution rather than upholds it.
This brings us to the third purpose of the Constitution which is "to ensure tranquility." When one party to a contract has been wronged, they take their complaint to a court and abide by whatever ruling the court makes. But when there is no court to resolve a dispute then other means are often employed, which usually involves violence.
The case of the Hatfields and McCoys is a vivid example of this and that was the situation with the Articles of Confederation. Because there was no court system to handle disputes between states, the states took justice into their own hands. Sometimes it erupted into a financial war over tariffs, or a war of revenge where one state passed laws just to punish another state for a law they had passed that negatively impacted them. Sometimes shots were fired across state boundary lines.
One of the purposes of the Constitution was to prevent hostilities from breaking out between states and it was in this way that the Constitution could ensure that tranquil relationships would exist between the states. But when a state secedes in a way that violates the law and is not fair or just to the other states with whom they were united to by an oath, then that can lead to a violent confrontation, which is exactly what happened in 1861 through 1865 between the Northern States and the Southern States.
But perhaps we can understand this principle by comparing it to another situation that is familiar to all of us.
When a single man meets a single woman and they fall in love, it usually isn't long before they have a desire to become married to each other. Marriage is a legal contract that binds what used to be two separate and independent people into one united partnership, and during the marriage vow they each pledge their fidelity and commitment to love, honor, and cherish one another and to preserve their union for better or for worse, in sickness and in health for as long as they both shall live.
Once that pledge has been made, both the husband and the wife still retain their individual freedom. In other words, the woman has not agreed to be completely submissive and totally obedient to every demand her husband makes and neither has the man agreed to do whatever his wife tells him to do. Yet, at the same time, the husband and the wife are no longer totally free to do whatever they want. Each must be willing to give up some of their former freedom if they want their union to survive and flourish.
However, despite this pledge, sometimes a husband or wife will find their marriage becoming increasingly unbearable and unsalvageable to the point where they wish to terminate the contract that has bound them together. When this happens both sides discuss with one another how to dissolve their marriage, even if that discussion takes place through their attorneys.
But, in order for the divorce to become valid and binding, it must go through a legal process where a new contract is made between the two parties. In almost every divorce settlement, there are items such as alimony, property rights, visitation rights and a list of other demands made by both sides that must be agreed upon and signed by all parties to the contract. It is only when that process has been completed does the divorce become final and legal.
However, there are instances where one of the spouses doesn't want to go through that process and merely leaves the house and never returns, but when that happens they forfeit all of the rights they once had in their marriage. More than that, the remaining spouse has the right to appeal to the courts to be compensated for the damage their spouse has inflicted upon them. For example, if a husband were to leave his wife and children, the wife could ask the court to have the husband pay support to her and the children. If the court agrees with her complaint, then a warrant is issued to the derelict husband ordering him to appear before a magistrate to show why he should not be compelled to provide financial support. If the husband refuses to appear in court as ordered, he will be held in contempt of court and arrested.
All adult Americans fully understand that this is how marriage and divorce works and it works exactly the same between the states and the federal government. The Constitution is the contract that weds or unites what once were thirteen free and independent states to the federal government. In that contract, the federal government has certain rights that it can exercise upon the states and the states have certain rights they can exercise upon the federal government.
Each are still allowed the freedom to do as they want within the rules of the contract but in order for the Union of states to survive and grow strong, the states must be willing to give up some of the freedom they once enjoyed. If not then the federal government becomes the submissive slave to the states. Yet, while the federal government is free and independent of the states, it cannot require the states to be totally submissive to its demands. Thus, just like in a marriage, both parties have given up some of their sovereignty for the sake of maintaining their union to one another.
Furthermore, by ratifying the Constitution, the states have pledged their commitment to preserving the Union and have promised to love, honor, and cherish the contract they made, whether that is when things are going well between them and when things are not going well. And this contract is to be perpetual. That is, they pledge to keep this union together forever as long as America shall live.
But what should be done if one or more of the states decides it can no longer tolerate being part of the United States of America? The answer is the same as what happens when a husband and wife want to divorced one another. It was a legal process that brought the states and the federal government together therefore there must be a legal process to dissolve that relationship. And in that process there must be terms agreed to by all parties before the divorce can become final.
This is how every war has been brought to an end. The fighting continues until both sides sit down with one another and agree upon the terms by which peace will be established. It may be that one side has no choice but to accept the harsh demands of the victor but until a contract (which is called a treaty) has been signed by both sides, they remain officially at war with one another, unless one side completely annihilates the other side. In that case there is no one left to make an agreement with. When that happens, any survivors of the war are simply taken as prisoners.
If one or more states were to walk away from the Union, legally speaking they would be in violation of their pledge to honor the terms of the Constitution. In that case, the injured parties, which would include the federal government and the states who had remained faithful to the Union, could sue for damages. If the states who left the Union refused to obey the court's orders, then the Union military would be sent out to enforce the demands of the court.
This provision is set forth in the Constitution when it says that Congress has the duty "for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union [and] suppress insurrection" (Article I, Section 8, clause 15). When a state refuses to abide by the laws of the Union, by definition, they are engaging in an act of insurrection. According to the Constitution, it is the federal Congress who has the duty for determining whether an insurrection has occurred and has the right to call forth the militia to put down any insurrection. But we can take this analogy a step further. While a marriage involves the union of a man and a woman, it frequently also involves the bringing forth of children. When that happens we refer to this union of people as a family. Children are people who have been endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to freely make their own decisions but when they are young the parents must make many of the decisions for them.
However, as the children grow up, parents deliberately teach them how to make good decisions on their own and by the time they are young adults they are making most of their own decisions. At that point the role of the parents is to provide guidance when and where it may be necessary. But as long as the children live with the parents, they are subject to the rules of the home and are expected to do their part in making the family work together in harmony.
In 1787 it was the original thirteen states who voluntarily choose to unite themselves with the Constitution which was the document that created the federal government. But then it was this Union that created other states that were born into the family of states. It was the federal government who gave birth to these new states and who nurtured them through their period of territorial government under the guidance of the federal congress. When they came forth as fully developed states, they had the same freedom to decide for themselves as all the other states had done but they also had the same responsibility to help preserve the Union and to abide by all the laws, rules, and procedures contained in the Constitution.
The reason why this is important to know is because today there are those believe that the states have the constitutional right to secede from their union with the federal government if they disagree with what the federal government is doing. Those who don't understand the Constitution and the contract that the states have entered into can easily be swayed into supporting something that is both unconstitutional and illegal.
Return to Nature of Freedom menu
Return to main menu