Lately I’ve been thinking about the Constitution, especially the preamble, which sets the tone for the document. These words are expansive and visionary, in sharp contrast to the crammed and kneejerk statement North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued in response to President Biden’s speech last week.
Let’s hear from the governor first:
“President Biden’s misguided plan steers our country down a dangerous path away from states’ rights and the freedom of private businesses to make their own decisions on vaccinations. We stand opposed to this blatant federal overreach. ...”
Now here’s what the preamble to the Constitution says, and remember that this dates from 1787:
“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, provide for a common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
When I was in high school, we students were required to memorize the preamble. The class was called “Present Day Problems,” and I was enrolled in the troubled days of the early 1960s.
I have never forgotten it.
The governor is a few years younger than I am. Perhaps by the time he was in high school the Constitution was no longer required reading.
Note the sequence of clauses in what amounts to a mission statement for the Constitution. The union is first, and to perfect it, justice must be established, domestic tranquility must be preserved, a common defense must be provided, and these things will secure the blessings of liberty.
Throughout the nation’s history, union, justice, domestic tranquility and the general welfare have been essential to liberty, not the other way around. Liberty alone doesn’t do any of these things. Instead, these things ensure liberty.
Of course, there’s very much more to the Constitution than the 52 words of the preamble, just as there is more to Burgum’s reaction to Biden’s speech.
The statement continued: “Safe, effective vaccines remain our best tool for preserving hospital capacity and ensuring access to care but forcing a vaccine mandate on private employers is not the role of the state or the federal government.”
But how else to promote the general welfare? How else to provide for a common defense against an invisible and insidious pandemic?
In pursuit of these goals, the federal government historically has imposed much more intrusive orders, including a military draft and conversion of domestic factories into munitions plants.
Even the Trump administration demanded that private corporations retool manufacturing plants to produce medical equipment, masks and vaccines to meet the initial challenge of the pandemic. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that his successor has suggested similar steps.
Burgum’s statement continues: “We have reached out to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to discuss options for mounting a legal challenge to this mandate.”
So much for a more perfect union.
Alas, the attorney general has fallen for these legal facades in the past, with a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, for example.
Here’s more of Burgum. Biden’s mandate, he said, “goes against everything I believe as a governor, a business owner and an American.”
And he “reminded the White House that the states created the federal government, not the other way around, and we will always vigorously defend states’ rights.”
Even a casual reading of American history will show that these words are the refuge of such scoundrels who attempted to wreck the union by insisting on the rights of states to legalize slavery. The resulting Civil War threatened “the more perfect union” that the framers of the Constitution aspired to, just as appeals to states’ rights to block masks and vaccines threaten the general welfare today.
Burgum’s statement is especially troubling because he acknowledges that “vaccines remain our best tool for preserving hospital capacity and ensuring access to care.”
He added this caveat: “Forcing a vaccine mandate on private employers is not the role of the state or federal government.”
How, then, are we to promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense and, indeed, to ensure domestic tranquility and form a more perfect union? Each of these is essential to securing the blessings of liberty.
Again, the Constitution is more than its opening declaration. Two centuries of deliberation, debate and Supreme Court decisions have proven that. At a moment of crisis – a turning point in the nation’s history – it’s appropriate to reread, rethink and recommit to the words of the preamble, which promises first union, next justice, then domestic tranquility and the general welfare and a common defense – all to secure the blessings of liberty. Those blessings depend on the precedents. Without union, justice, tranquility and a common defense, the American commitment to the blessings of liberty is at risk.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.