This is the fourth in a series of anticipated posts closely reading the Constitution of the United States for homeland security implications. Readers are encouraged to use the comment function to add background, analysis, exegesis or exposition related to the text highlighted.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.
Jefferson was not in Philadelphia to debate the Constitution. At the time he was serving as the ambassador of these (profoundly plural, but potentially) United States to the French court. In late 1787 Jefferson wrote a friend, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Jefferson was writing about Shay’s Rebellion. This was a sometimes violent anti-government — anti-tax and anti-debt foreclosure — movement that arose especially among Revolutionary War veterans in Western Massachusetts. The national government did not have sufficient funds to mobilize an effective response and Massachusetts was nearly as hard-pressed.
Especially as the Convention delegates — mostly prominent men of property — gathered in Philadelphia between May and September 1787 the rebellion’s very recent challenge to domestic tranquility was much on their mind.
What is the difference between a terrorist and freedom-fighter?
Elbridge Gerry was a Massachusetts delegate to the Philadelphia Convention. Gerry had little sympathy for the rabble-rousers, saying, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” (Later as Governor of Massachusetts, Gerry was progenitor of the “gerrymander,” no doubt easier to justify when you mistrust the character of voters.)
But for Gerry the prospect of a stronger national power to deal with such challenges could be even more dangerous. During debate he argued, “A standing army is like a standing member. It’s an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” And a potential means for suppressing personal liberty. Gerry was one of three delegates at Philadelphia who refused to sign the proposed constitution because of the absence of a Bill of Rights. When this was later corrected, Gerry served as Vice President under James Madison.
Disagreements regarding the appropriate balance between liberty and security go all the way back.
In 1995 Timothy McVeigh wore a t-shirt featuring Jefferson’s words on “refreshing the tree of liberty” when he bombed the Murrah Building spilling the blood of 168, including fifteen children enrolled in America’s Kids Day Care Center.