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The Idea of Self-Government Is in the First Three Words of the Constitution. What Are These Words?

We the people
The United States Constitution famously opens with the words, "We the people"

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?


“We the People”

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

“We the people” in Context

The Constitution opens with the words “We the people.” Even taken out of context, the phrase implies that the authors are members of the population they speak for. The suggestion is that the people are speaking for themselves.

The rest of the sentence can be divided into two sections. The middle outlines the goals that the Constitution aims to accomplish. These include unity, justice, peace, defense, promoting welfare, and securing freedom.

The end provides essential context for the first three words, “We the people,” by describing what the people aim to do. The people are creating a Constitution to achieve the goals mentioned in the middle, and this Constitution will serve as the government of the United States.

Absent the goals, the first sentence reads, “We the people… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

In other words, the government is being created by the people. This is a clear example of self-government, as the government is created by the people in the entity that makes and enforces rules.

What Is Self-Government?

Self-government is the idea that a population is responsible for governing itself. Under self-government, a country’s people elect leaders and representatives, make rules, and enforce laws. 

In the United States, not only was the Constitution written by members of the population, but citizens voted to elect people to positions of authority. In some states and cities, voters can also vote directly on new laws, giving them the ability to create their own legislation.

Self-government is often discussed in contexts where an external entity governs a place or group. Before the Revolutionary War, for example, the American colonies were governed by the King and Parliament of Great Britain.

Prior to 1774, the British allowed Massachusetts to elect its own executive council, giving it a reasonable amount of self-government. 

The passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 removed the colony of Massachusetts’s power to choose its council members and assigned that authority to the King of England. Rather than accept this loss of self-government, Massachusetts’ population ignored the British-appointed government in Boston and set up their local government away from the King’s army. 

Eventually, the colonists successfully ousted the British government entirely following the American Revolution, adopting the principles of self-government via the Articles of Confederation and then later with the Constitution. 

In this example, “self-government’ distinguishes between a ruling entity appointed by a foreign monarch and one elected by the people themselves.

Who Does the Constitution Give Power To?

Even outside of the first three words, much of the United States Constitution is set up to provide the people with the power to govern themselves. 

Each person has the right to vote for their representatives to Congress. They have the right to speak critically against the government and assemble for political events. They have a number of enumerated rights upon which the government may not infringe, including the right to vote.

Additionally, the Constitution limits the power of the federal government and reserves many functions for smaller state governments, which are closer to the people they represent. This allows each voter to have a greater say on the rules governing them.

While citizens have a great deal of control over the exact organization of their state governments, the Constitution mandates that each state government must follow a “republican form,” ensuring that citizens may vote in their state’s democracy. 

The balance between the national government and state governments (called federalism) helps to ensure a balance between the ability of the population to self-govern and the unity of the nation as a whole.

Some scholars argue that the right to assemble in the First Amendment was included to protect the right of self-government directly. Before the Revolutionary War, American colonists often met in town, county, and general assemblies. These meetings had the force of law, and the colonists would enact and enforce policies. 

In the lead-up to the American Revolution, the British government attempted to outlaw these assemblies. This suggests that the “right to assemble” may have been originally intended to protect the right of the people to self-govern at a town, county, or even state level.

How Was the Constitution Ratified?

During the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution itself was written by a handful of delegates, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. 

In order to go into effect, the document needed to be ratified by the states. As each state ratified and adopted the Constitution, the words “we the people” were expanded to refer to the populations of those states. 

In order to stay in line with the idea of local self-government, the Constitution was ratified in a process that involved much public debate by elected delegates. States held special ratifying conventions in which delegates considered the merits and drawbacks of the Constitution before deciding whether or not to adopt it.

The Founding Fathers were careful to ensure that a minority of the population could not ratify the Constitution. Instead of requiring a slight majority of states to ratify the document, they required 9.

This ensured that seven of the smaller states couldn’t ratify the document over the objections of six of the larger states. In this way, they ensured that the adoption of the Constitution was consistent with the principles of self-government.

A Document for the People

The United States Constitution starts with the words “we the people,” signifying that it is written by the people and that it is the people who have the right to create the government. These words help set the tone of the rest of the document and reinforce the importance of the concept of self-government to both the founding fathers and the American government itself.

While the rest of the Constitution helps solidify these ideas and protect the rights of the people, the first three words are the best and clearest example of self-government in the Constitution.

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