Sunday, November 20, 2011

What Did "We the people..." Mean?

The prevailing way how the early American history is nowadays taught, not only in America but also abroad, is by instilling the myth that the USA originated as a strong central government with a distinct sense of national unity from the beginning - since the adoption and ratification of the Constitution. One of the most succinct symbolic representations of this alleged fact is the famous syntagm "We the people of the United States..." from the preamble of the Constitution.

This syntagm is very often interpreted today as to mean "we the people of the unified country called the USA", "the People" being understood as an aggregate. Moreover, the proponents of the nationalist theory of the union are very quick to point out that the Constitution did not say, "we the people of the several states" and that this amounts to the final and conclusive proof that the compact theory of the union (which says that the USA were originally just a league of independent and sovereign states) is wrong.

However, when we look at the record of the Philadelphia Convention as well as in the records of the ratification debates in the several states it becomes obvious that this is a completely false interpretation. The first draft of the Constitution, as approved by the delegates in Philadelphia read: "We the people of Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island..." enumerating all 13 colonies, and then went on with the same text as in the finally adopted Constitution. The first draft was sent in this form to the Committee on style for final reading and stylistic polishing. The Committee noticed that there was a contradiction between the provision in the text that for the ratification of the Constitution it was sufficient that 9 out of 13 states approve it, and listing all 13 states in the preamble. What if some states reject the Constitution - in that case they would not be obliged by it and would remain out of the union. Since nobody knew at the time how many states and which ones were going to ratify, the Committee on Style proposed to drop the enumeration of the states from the Preamble (because this was considered to be offensive to them) and leave a simple "We the people of the United States...". However, this obviously did not mean that the Committee on Style redefined the nature of the union (!), but just that the states' names were dropped for the reasons of political convenience.

These changes were approved unanimously by both federalists and anti-federalists and the text of the Constitution sent to the states for ratification. So,if the nationalists are to be believed, we are supposed to think that the opponents of the new Constitution in Philadelphia would accept without any protest the revolutionary remaking of the very nature of the union, made by the Committee on Style?!

When Patrick Henry, a leading opponent of the new Constitution (not present in Philadelphia) raised the question of this phrase "We the people" during the Virginia ratifying convention, objecting to what had seemed to him as a nationalist overtone in it, James Madison personally responded and reassured all the delegates that "we the people..." meant:

not the people as composing one great body. Rather, it is the people as composing thirteen sovereignties.

So, the Constitution was not ratified by one, aggregate American people but by the sovereign peoples of 13 independent states. Consequently, the very notion that the syntagm "We the people.." from the Constitutional Preamble proves that the USA were a unified, national government from the beginning is a pure historical fiction.

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