In President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address” in November of 1863, he wound up his short speech by exclaiming that the living be dedicated to and increase their devotion to the “unfinished work” that the brave soldiers died for: that a government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth. Almost 150 years later, our country seems still at odds about what that kind of government really means.
Of the people? That could mean the voters electing fellow citizens to office. By the People? Those same voters having a say in what their government does or doesn’t do via their votes or support of a candidate for office. But what of For the People? What exactly does that mean? And is “the” people referring to ALL the people or a chosen few? Is it a call to Socialism, whereas the government exists to better it’s country’s residents individually and collectively? Perhaps by taking care of every single citizen by way of human rights, education, fire/police/disaster aid and even health care while creating and maintaining infrastructure and protecting the environment with a macro view of the betterment of the populace?
While that would be an easy and somewhat fitting definition from a liberal point of view, the idea of “for the people” cannot so easily be defined in the right wing/Tea Party realm. Not one thing they suggest for this country seems designed “for” the people, unless you are the fortunate people in the top 1% of our economic strata. So what of Lincoln’s wise words? After all, he was the first Republican president and one of the highest regarded in history (number 1-3 in every poll). For some added perspective, let’s add some wisdom from that oft-mentioned and quite wonderful document, The U.S. Constitution, specifically the 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 Preamble is generally used to interpret the meaning of the Constitution as a whole, giving it an underlying purpose and reason for existing. And much like the Gettysburg address, it’s quite succinct. It tells us that in order to form “a more perfect Union” while establishing Justice, insuring domestic Tranquility and providing for the common defence (spelled as such) we must also “promote the general Welfare.” As a nice bonus, we also secure the “Blessings of Liberty” to ourselves and our Posterity. Then We the People of the USA (meaning those people writing the Constitution at the time) ordained and established the Constitution for our country’s then and future residents.
Sounds pretty cool overall, considering the time and place it was written. Slavery was still in place and women’s rights lagged far behind their male counterparts. Child labor laws were unheard of, as were safety regulations for our food, air, water and all products on the marketplace. Environmental and agricultural laws weren’t invented yet, but there weren’t enough people in existence to severely impact the environment or overtax the natural resources of the land so any transgressions as such went virtually unnoticed at the time. But within 200 years things changed drastically. The population boomed, our relation to the rest of the world intensified and our priorities fluctuated. Cycles of economic boom and bust ensued, the equilibrium of wealth went in and out of balance, and some things both great and terrible went on. Yes, we built an interstate highway system and created Social Security and Medicare, but we also went into countless expensive wars that increased the problems they were intended to fix. But along the way, civil rights for minorities and women were strengthened, our air, food and drinking water were protected and no matter what, there was a feeling that despite our flaws, there is no greater country to live in anywhere on the planet. But lately, the meaning and influence of the Constitution have also become blurry, especially in light of the Tea Party’s constant veneration of its importance.
Rather than give an opinion at this point on what the Preamble and Gettysburg Address “mean” I’d like to list a few definitions from Webster’s Dictionary so as to elucidate the intrinsic definitions of some of the more important words used in the Preamble. Keep in mind that these definitions are not political or opinionated by nature, just independent meanings of words utilized by the founders of our country in writing our constitution.
Union: A political unit constituting an organic whole formed usually from units which were previously governed separately (as England and Scotland in 1707) and which have surrendered or delegated their principal powers to the government of the whole or to a newly created government (as the United States in 1789). Capitalized: the federal union of states during the period of the American Civil War.
Justice: The administration of law, especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity; conformity to truth, fact, or reason. The maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.
Tranquility: The quality or state of being tranquil, which means: free from agitation of mind or spirit; free from disturbance or turmoil.
Common: Public; widespread; general; of or relating to a community at large; known to the community; belonging to or shared by all members of a group; characterized by a lack of privilege or special status.
Defense: Capability of resisting attack; means or method of defending or protecting oneself, one’s team, or another.
Welfare: The state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity. Also, aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need and an agency or program through which such aid is distributed.
Posterity: The offspring of one progenitor to the furthest generation. Also, all future generations.
If we used those definitions to refresh the meaning of the Preamble, it might read something like this:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish law and the administration thereof with conformity to truth, fact, and reason, insure domestic freedom from disturbance, turmoil and agitation of mind or spirit, provide for the general, widespread and shared defense, promote the general happiness, well-being and prosperity (with monetary aid if necessary) with no privilege or special status, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and all future generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Now let’s do the same for Lincoln’s speech, focusing on the four most important words:
Of: Relating to, in respect to. Used as a function word to indicate origin or derivation; to indicate the cause, motive, or reason; to indicate the component material, parts, or elements or the contents; to indicate belonging or a possessive relationship.
By: In proximity to; through or through the medium of; through the agency or instrumentality of; with the witness or sanction of; in conformity with; on behalf of; with respect to; in the opinion of; from the point of view of.
For: Used as a function word to indicate purpose; to indicate an intended goal; to indicate the object or recipient of a perception, desire, or activity; as being or constituting; because of; on behalf of; representing; in favor of; with respect to; in honor of.
People: Human beings making up a group or assembly or linked by a common interest; the mass of a community as distinguished from a special class; the body of enfranchised citizens of a state; a body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship, that typically have common language, institutions, and beliefs, and that often constitute a politically organized group.
Now read Lincoln’s own words from Gettysburg:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So what do you think a Government Of the People, By the People and For the People should stand for? Or maybe the better question is: Of, By and For which People? Here’s a thought from one of Marty Kaplan’s excellent HuffPost pieces: “The game in Washington is to use the deficit as camouflage for destroying government’s capacity to promote the general welfare.” So is that the right-wing Republican manifesto? In order to undo the New Deal you max out the government credit card from a surplus into near default status on wars, a Medicare drug benefit plan and tax cuts during the Bush years, then suggest the way out of that black hole is to somehow dismantle the governments abilities to fulfill their duties for entitlements at a time when they’re needed the most? Maybe John Boehner and Mitch McConnell could rewrite the preamble to fit their slash and burn philosophy:
We the Republican People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Oligarchy, corrupt Justice, disrupt domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense Industry, destroy the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Corporatocracy, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the wealthiest 1% of the United States of America.
Personally, I like the original better…
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