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We the People

September 26, 2016

I was just at the Nation Constitution Center in Philadelphia which celebrates the creation and history of the US Constitution – the seminal document of our democracy. There I was struck anew by its first three words, “We the People” and by the vast array of difficulties, differences and problems those people and the constitution’s framers had to struggle with when they were no longer united by the need to overcome a common foe. Problems and issues that could have destroyed our fledgling nation in its infancy.

As a country built on immigration, those peoples’ representatives gathered from the thirteen newly minted states in 1787 during a hot summer in Philadelphia. They did so knowing that in the face of such diverse and geographically dispersed populations there were no easy answers or quick fixes to the complicated questions and controversial bones of contention they had to wrestle with. The problems of governance facing them seemed nigh on insurmountable. How to find an equitable and fair balance between the individual and the state, between geographic regions and economies? How to accommodate the interests of the larger states versus those of the smaller? What would be the powers of the various states as compared to that of a federal government? How could they insure that no branch of government could overpower the others and that no dictator, by whatever name, could take control of the reins of power? And not least, how could they accommodate change in a document they were drafting for the centuries, change that time might indicate would be needed as the nation grew? In short how could they design a truly functioning democracy.

In the end, however, they all seemed to come together in recognition of the one overriding thing each state, each individual great or small, had in common – the common good of “We the People.” That common good turned out to be the glue that bonded our nation together through good times and bad for well over two hundred years now.  It produced compromise after compromise that both then and in the centuries that followed made the whole greater than the individual parts and produced our great nation.

Overall, we are still an immigrant nation in the sense that we can all trace our roots, if based on nothing other than our family names, to immigrants who came to these shores for a host of different reasons. Immigrants that ended up making the whole stronger and greater than it was before they arrived. In this light, with this heritage, we are still faced with the ongoing question, the ongoing experiment to see if we can continue to govern ourselves not based on fear, hate or distrust, but based on a search for the common good of “We the People.”

Many of us, however, appear to be losing sight of this heritage, this truth. Instead more and more seem to be succumbing to a selfish ethos that worships the individual good at the expense of the whole. Get what you can and the devil takes the weakest. The desires and greed of the few seem to trump the needs of the many and no one should have to make the least sacrifice for those around them. An ethos of keep what’s yours no matter how great the nation’s need or the plight of the world we live in. I do not subscribe to this philosophy.

When we are tempted to buy into this approach, we need to pause and look back on America’s history to our nation’s founders. As we do so, we should ask ourselves why can’t we adopt their acceptance of compromise based on understanding the needs of others and seek the common good of all, of “We the People.”