All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1988

Celebrating the Constitutionand Village Fires

Mr. Mayer is a surveyor living in Schuylerville, New York

The really interesting thing about a fire isn’t watching the fire, or even the fire engines and firemen who are fighting the fire; rather, what’s really interesting is to watch the people who are watching it all.

So with our recent celebration of the Constitution. What seemed most interesting was what we as spectators made of its anniversary.

The same was true of other celebrations during the past several years, dealing with the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty. They were mostly pageantry.

In the case of the Declaration it was hard to detect any serious contemplation of the document or its theses. The Statue’s celebration was even more bizarre. It was capped by fireworks and plush yachts in New York harbor and, ironically, the almost simultaneous enactment of a new immigration law requiring not only proof of worth by those who would heed the spirit of the beckoning Lady but, even more so, proof by those of us already born here.

And so with our recent celebration of the Constitution; it seemed mostly irrelevant, even contradictory.

Three emphases were notable: the Preamble, the Amendments, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The first two seem peripheral, the last, unrelated. What’s wrong with emphasizing the Preamble, Bill of Rights, and Pledge of Allegiance? Let’s look at each more closely.

The Preamble

The Preamble is just that, a preface. It is not the Constitution itself but rather a setting forth of the reasons for the law which follows. Thus the Preamble speaks of a more perfect union, justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare, and liberty. These were the purposes of the Constitution, but they were not the law itself. The Constitution proper was the nuts and bolts of how officials are selected, who has what powers, and the like. It is political engineering designed to promote the Preamble’s purposes. Whether such goals would be gained by this structure was a matter of conjecture on the part of the founders. Yet it must be clear that their product was machinery, not goals. It was the means; whereas the Preamble was the ends.

And here we enter the treacherous thicket of means and ends. The ends sought in the Preamble could not be guaranteed. The best that could be hoped for was to establish a favorable climate. To concentrate on ends is always dangerous; it places us in the position of justifying any means to accomplish them. To emphasize the goals (justice, general welfare, and so on) is to make what followed immaterial—any means would be acceptable. No, it was the means, the constitutional machinery itself, which were agreed upon. The Preamble merely set forth the reason or logic, the guiding star, for that which followed.

This is not unlike other agreements or contracts. A father and son may covenant that in order to win at sports, get a diploma, and stand on his own feet, the lad will practice faithfully, attend classes, and get a job after school. What is actually agreed to here is practicing, going to school, and earning money. The recital of winning, diploma, and self-sufficiency are merely reasons for the agreement, its preamble.

To allow these introductory reasons to become the primary concern is to permit any means to their end. Thus the boy could justify fouling his opponent, cheating on exams, and robbing banks, since these would advance him toward the goals of victory, a diploma and wealth, which are sought.

So it is with the Constitution’s Preamble. Emphasizing the Preamble has allowed us to erroneously think that any means toward general welfare, tranquility, liberty, and so on are justified. But these, in fact, are goals. The only thing really justified by the Constitution is the means set forth in the actual document which follows the Preamble.

This is the danger in emphasizing the Preamble. Yet that is what we saw so much of in the recent celebration. Commemorative postage stamps quoted the Preamble; citizen responses declared that the Constitution’s value was that it “guarantees my success” or “freedom” and the like—all of which is not the actual Constitution, but rather its purpose. This is dangerous thinking.


A second emphasis was on the Amendments to the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights.

Obviously amendments are not a part of the Constitution proper. An amendment, by definition, is something which alters the original. Yet here is where, again, great emphasis was placed.

Probably this is because, as with the Preamble, the Amendments deal largely with goals or ends, rather than means. Most of the Amendments (at least the exciting ones) deal with various freedoms and rights, prohibition of alcohol, equality, and the like. These are what we want, rather than how we plan to get there. That is why they are so much more of interest than is the Constitution proper with its nuts and bolts machinery of the journey.

Again, this is dangerous, for such a view tends to unleash any means to the acquisition of these ends. And this is what the founders feared and intended to proscribe—the unbridled power toward any end. Again we hear the trumpet call (as in the Preamble) of “We the People!” and let’s not pay too much attention to the rules (the Constitution itself) lest it frustrate the accomplishment, by any means, of our chosen ends.

The Pledge of Allegiance

Finally, a third emphasis so noticeable was the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag—a strange gesture in celebrating the Constitution, both in regards of time and intent. The Pledge came only much later in the evolution of our political ceremonies, and its spirit seems unrelated, even incompatible, to the Constitution.

Any pledge of allegiance has the sense of subservience or loyalty of a people to their state or its symbols. Such expressions have little relevance to the machinery of government, to the Constitution we were purporting to honor—indeed, a Constitution which was designed to limit state power. The Pledge sounds forth a people’s obligation to their country, rather than the Constitution’s restraints on that country’s power over its people. Particularly troublesome was the specter of massed children, under duress of their mentors in compulsory state schools, rotely reciting allegiance to a political talisman which suggests a fealty at odds with the true spirit of the Constitution.

Now if the Preamble, Bill of Rights, and Pledge of Allegiance seem peripheral or unrelated to the Constitution, how would a true celebration of that noble document appear? Probably quite boring! Yet that was the problem with which we were faced.

To be honest in our celebration, a more appropriate 200th anniversary probably should have addressed the mechanics of the Federal form of government, separation of powers, constraints on the state, the actual enumeration of the powers granted to the various branches, tests for office, and the like. If we did get to the Amendments we should not have ignored such critical ones as the ninth and tenth.

Legal Fiction

This was not to be. Perhaps it is because the Constitution has become what historians call a legal fiction. Like the Crown for many Englishmen, the Constitution has become for us something which, though important as a symbol and rallying cry, is little more than that. Hence we emphasized the Preamble which states its purpose and tends to justify any means to these ends, the Amendments which changed it to satisfy more recently desired ends to be acquired through the state’s coercive powers, and a Pledge of Allegiance which generally regiments everyone into a mental state of going along with society’s agenda. It all seemed a non-celebration of the Constitution—or, perhaps better, a celebration of the non-Constitution.

A local newspaper was illustrative in this regard. Of the six page special section devoted to the forthcoming celebration, a mere quarter page was given to a not altogether cogent paraphrasing of the Constitution itself, and this on the back page at that. The other 5¾ pages were devoted to the Preamble, the Amendments (two full pages), some rather shallow commentary, trivia type questions, editorial expressions of how certain current goals could be achieved by further flexing or amending the document, and sundry notices of planned pledges of allegiance.

As we did indeed see, the celebration culminated in a mass Pledge of Allegiance led by the President and former Chief Justice, all of which seemed more sideshow than main event—the celebration of our organic law.

And so, more interesting than studying the Constitution itself was observing our public celebration of it; so reminiscent to running down the street at the sound of sirens, to watch the people who are watching the fire.