In my last post, I argued that “We the People of the United States” is best understood as referring to a single people consisting of separate states. It is not a single people in a single undifferentiated nation like France, but instead is a country that consists of individual states that are united together.
This interpretation of the preamble views it as adopting an intermediate view between the nationalist view of a single people in an undifferentiated nation and the states rights view of multiple peoples in multiple states.
If the preamble adopts an intermediate view, does it fit with the remainder of the Constitution and what specifically is that view? The intermediate view of the preamble accords with the analysis of the Constitution adopted by James Madison in Federalist 39. In that number, Madison was responding to critics who argued that the Constitution was a national document and should have been a federal one. Madison wrote:
One of the key arguments made by constitutional nationalists is that the Constitution provides that “We the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution.” The idea is that a single people throughout the country as a whole established the Constitution and therefore sovereignty resides at the national level in that people. Moreover, this national sovereignty negates any inferences that might otherwise follow from the idea that the Constitution consists of a compact of states. While this is certainly one interpretation of this language, it is certainly not the only one. And here I want to suggest an intermediate understanding – one that is in between national and states rights sovereignty.
We the People of the United States has two concepts in it: (1) the People and (2) the United States. Each of those ideas has two possible interpretations. The People might refer either to a single people of the nation or to the separate peoples of the different states. Similarly, the United States might refer to a single national country – as France does – or it might refer to a country that consists of multiple states. In the latter case, the meaning of the United States would be similar to the meaning of United Nations – an organization that consists of multiple different nations.
The nationalist view works best if both of these concepts have the nationalist interpretation – if it is one people and a single national country. The states right view works best if both of these concepts have the compact between states interpretation – if it is multiple peoples and a country consisting of multiple states.
While it is possible to view both concepts in either way, I believe that the stronger interpretation of people is the national view and the stronger interpretation of the country is the states view.
We the People of the United States is best understood as referring to a single people. After all, if the Framers had intended for the Constitution to reflect the actions of multiple peoples, it could have easily provided “We the Peoples of the United States.” But it does not say that. The better reading is that it establishes a single people. Also supporting this conclusion is the Tenth Amendment, which says that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”