In 1980 I taught American Government at the University of Oklahoma. As a 22 year old grad student I was thrown into the teaching profession totally unprepared. As I was teaching a required class that no one was interested in and every dreaded taking it I decided that I needed to find a textbook that challenged the students preconceived notions (I also wanted one that was cheap).
I found Michael Parenti’s, Democracy For The Few, and to say it challenged convention Oklahoman notions would be an understatement.
Then of course comes that first day of classes and the decision of exactly where do you start a discussion of “American Government?”
Back in 1980 we did have Republicans and Democrats but the concepts of “conservative” and “liberal” were different; thinking back it was easy to trace out the faint outlines of the various defined political persuasions we see today but they were not so well defined back then and not so partisan ugly.
So, I decided to start my first lecture with one simple question: ”Why Government?”
Of course you had your libertarians who believed the, or maybe just their world, would be a better place if there wasn’t any government. So to these folks you ask questions that make them think about all that government does and how ingrained the concept of government, laws, and authority are in our own personal psyche. What would the world look like if there was no government and if there had never been government?
Then of course you also have a few budding liberals, yes even in Oklahoma. Of course they believe government is necessary and they focus on the potential good that society can achieve when government does what it does best. But, what if you realize that government can also do bad? Government can and does hurt people, destroy lives, and benefits some while destroying others; what then? If you find that government does not do what you believe it exists to do then what?
At some point, after this lively discussion, you had 120 students who left their American Government class that week thinking about “government.”
Then you follow up that class with one that discusses the preamble of the U.S. Constitution:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.
There is a lot to cover in this simple sentence:
- “We the people”
- “in order to form”
- “a more perfect union”
- “establish Justice”
- “insure domestic tranquility”
- “provide for the common defense”
- “promote the general welfare”
- “secure the blessings of liberty”
- “do ordain”
Of course nowadays we have all these budding “Founding Fathers Scholars” who have read The Federalist Papers and have spent years analyzing the sentiment and logic of our Founding Fathers but back 1980 most people had not even heard of The Federalist Papers and obviously had no clue about the existence of The Anti-Federalist Papers.
I still read this preamble and ask myself, “What does this mean to me?”
I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and or referring to what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote this document for the simple reason that it does not begin with “WE THE FOUNDING FATHERS…..”
It begins with, “WE THE PEOPLE….”
Its our constitution not theirs. Remember, they were attempting to break with the worship and heritage of the concept of the divine right of kings and we in turn are attempting to restore it every time we refer back to “The Founding Fathers.”
Think about it, had our Founding Fathers wanted us to worship them and treat them like oracles then obviously, they would have began the preamble of the U.S. Constitution differently. But, they chose “We The People….”
What does it mean? What does it mean to you in your own words, because your own words come from your own thoughts.