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Q: The Constitution begins with the words "We the people of the United States"; who were "the people" according to the framers?

A: The words "We the people," which begin the Constitution—"We the people of the United States create and ordain this new form of government"—are not self-explanatory. They don't tell you who "the people" are, and in fact if you read the Constitution carefully you will see that there are different types of persons within the United States, not all of whom are "the people." For example, the Constitution refers to Indians as being another people: they are considered members of tribes with their own sovereignty; they are dealt with by treaty; in other words, they are separate people, they are not part of "We the people of the United States." And then of course there are those referred to in the Constitution rather indirectly as "other persons." "Other persons": these are the slaves. The word slaves or slavery does not exist in the original Constitution. The first time it gets into the Constitution is in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes it in 1865, but if the word is not there the thing is definitely there. Those "other persons" are not entitled to the rights which the Constitution outlines. So you have "people" and "persons"; the "We the people" are basically the free population of the United States not including the slaves and not including Indians, so it's a much more limited group than might appear at first glance.

 

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Download or watch and listen online to over 150 informative podcasts in which textbook author, Eric Foner, clarifies major events covered in the textbook.

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