The preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with “We the People,” not “We the States.” But, more than 200 years ago, as the Constitution was being drafted, there was debate whether “We the States” might be preferable.

We, the people, should be thankful that “We the People” won, giving support to the concept that the power in our nation belongs to all American citizens to ensure their welfare, not the welfare of states.

And not dependent on which state you live in.

As a nation, we dodged a musket-ball.

But the issue of states’ rights over their citizens is about to break wide open if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. It will effectively toss the issue to individual states to decide whether abortion should be legal within their borders. It will become a 50-state, crazy-quilt patchwork of conflicting laws.

Abortion will remain legal in some states. In others, a state legislature might declare it illegal — perhaps even declaring abortion to be committing murder, complete with criminal penalties.

Other crazy-quilt spinoffs are surfacing.

Early this week, the governor of Mississippi said he would not rule out some sort of ban on birth control, a breathtaking extension of the already twisted thinking of banning abortion. And, gleeful anti-abortion activists are publicly supporting other civil-liberty crushing measures, like stopping the sale and/or delivery of abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals.

I find “The Serenity Prayer” useful to bring my blood pressure down these days after scanning news headlines.

The historical tidbit about We the People vs. We the States came my way while reading a book by journalist-historian Thomas E. Ricks. “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country” sounds like a stiff, academic treatise. But because of our current political chaos, Ricks’ book reads almost like a thriller. It explains the origins of the United States by examining the lives, educations and writings of the first four American presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Many other people were involved, of course. But this gang of four was in the rooms where it happened.

They were classically educated and very familiar with the works of Cato, Cicero, Aristotle and Epicurus, among many other Greeks and Romans, as well as European thinkers like John Locke.

Many of the first four U.S. presidents’ educated contemporaries were similarly schooled, giving them common philosophical ground to discuss and debate with references from antiquity to bolster their arguments. Much of that discussion/debate was carried on via lengthy handwritten letters, excerpted at length in Ricks’ book.

Their lucid language and quality of arguments made me wish more politicians today would communicate as thoughtfully, instead of via hastily drafted tweets.

Longer and thoughtful debate still included plenty of harsh political discourse during the American Revolution and drafting of the U.S. Constitution, even among the four on which Ricks focused. Working out strong disagreements about states’ rights, slavery, voting rights, trade disputes and whether to have a national paper currency was difficult and challenging. Reviewing their struggles highlights how dysfunctional our political discourse and decision-making is now.

Today, we are living amid one of the greatest fears these forefathers had: a nation deeply divided into factions. They worried that dividing into political parties (birthed in those early days) would only exacerbate differences of opinion and not be helpful at reaching the compromises needed for democracy to flourish.

Their fears were well-founded, clearly demonstrated by the conflicting opinions over the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

Perhaps we should find a way to channel Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison for advice. Reading Thomas Ricks’ “First Principles” might help too.

Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor, as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, N.Y., and the Pacific Northwest. Email him at Visit his website at

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