This is the ninth in a series of 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.
We the People of the United States are plural cultures, experiences, values, and folk-wisdoms uprooted, transplanted, hybridized, commercialized, and offered as new and improved to all.
This diversity of background has certainly been amplified since the Constitution was crafted. But our polyglot character was present — and recognized — at our genesis.
Our founding emerged from separation, often arising from national, religious or political differences which were then reinforced, even multiplied by the physical distance between ourselves and the places from whence we came.
Our founding emerged from a time and spirit-of-the-times in the midst of becoming profoundly skeptical of received tradition. The Founders were especially cognizant of their (our) limitations and the thereby treacherous task of creating a nation ex nihilo.
A long quote of Madison from Federalist 37:
Every man will be sensible of this difficulty, in proportion as he has been accustomed to contemplate and discriminate objects extensive and complicated in their nature. The faculties of the mind itself have never yet been distinguished and defined, with satisfactory precision, by all the efforts of the most acute and metaphysical philosophers. Sense, perception, judgment, desire, volition, memory, imagination, are found to be separated by such delicate shades and minute gradations that their boundaries have eluded the most subtle investigations, and remain a pregnant source of ingenious disquisition and controversy…
When we pass from the works of nature, in which all the delineations are perfectly accurate, and appear to be otherwise only from the imperfection of the eye which surveys them, to the institutions of man, in which the obscurity arises as well from the object itself as from the organ by which it is contemplated, we must perceive the necessity of moderating still further our expectations and hopes from the efforts of human sagacity. Experience has instructed us that no skill in the science of government has yet been able to discriminate and define, with sufficient certainty, its three great provinces the legislative, executive, and judiciary; or even the privileges and powers of the different legislative branches. Questions daily occur in the course of practice, which prove the obscurity which reins in these subjects, and which puzzle the greatest adepts in political science.
The experience of ages, with the continued and combined labors of the most enlightened legislatures and jurists, has been equally unsuccessful in delineating the several objects and limits of different codes of laws and different tribunals of justice. The precise extent of the common law, and the statute law, the maritime law, the ecclesiastical law, the law of corporations, and other local laws and customs…
Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects, and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other adds a fresh embarrassment. The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. Hence it must happen that however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered. And this unavoidable inaccuracy must be greater or less, according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined. When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.
Here, then, are three sources of vague and incorrect definitions: indistinctness of the object, imperfection of the organ of conception, inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas. Any one of these must produce a certain degree of obscurity.
Knowledge is uncertain. Wisdom is fleeting and even then incomplete. Yet we are called to live and apparently to live together. So how do we frame a process by which we might make a common way through this jungle of inaccuracy, imperfection, and our each and every inadequacy?
The Framers chose to leap beyond the prior reality of organic communities formed of unfolding generations, similar backgrounds, and widely held — if never universal — opinion. They chose — they risked — the creation of something entirely new.
They ordained — they wove of many threads — an unprecedented pattern. They established, they constructed a dwelling on a firm foundation in which they and we could abide together not just tolerating, but celebrating and benefiting from shared diversity.
The structure has occasionally failed and it has certainly been abused. Doors have been slammed. Fires have claimed whole wings. Family members exiled and murdered. Strangers in desperate need turned away. There are ghosts of old evils that still haunt us. There are weird uncles and worse who live among us now.
But it remains a grand place. Consistent with its founding and framing, it is especially hospitable to discovery, invention, and celebration of what is new. This has become our tradition: the overturning of tradition.
Homeland security was conceived to give particular and innovative care to this our common home. We are, in a way, the maintenance crew for a vast laboratory of sometime mad scientists. We keep the lights on, water flowing, HVAC churning, haul away debris, and help everyone stay safe. But we don’t want to get in the way of the ongoing work of exploration and creation. We may even have a role in co-creating.