Terms to Know

Each of the Terms to Know relates to concepts found in the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. Click on the term listed below to read an explanation of its meaning.

Preamble to the Constitution

From the Declaration of Independence

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


"We hold these truths to be self-evident"
The meaning of “self-evident truths.” Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration states, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….”

What does “self-evident” mean? According to Jefferson and other prominent thinkers of his time, such statements as “all Men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’ are obviously true. Such statements do not require proof. The “truths” are held to be unquestionable and beyond debate, since their truth is said to be obvious. They can be stated without elaborating or defending them. These ideas were very familiar to Jefferson and the other authors and editors of the Declaration. They were also very familiar to most Americans of the time. Why should this have been so?

History of the term “self-evident truths.” That “all Men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with Certain unalienable Rights” was self-evident to Americans at the time of the writing of the Declaration. They were a deeply religious people who were very familiar with the idea of universal human equality from the teachings of Christianity and from English republicanism. They were familiar with the idea of inalienable rights from the political writings of John Locke’s Second Treatise and other English sources.

The “Pursuit of Happiness” would have been a self-evident consequence of the natural right to liberty, which no supporter of the Revolution doubted.

The colonists also believed strongly that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed and that the governed have a right to revolution when government betrays its trust. Again, these ideas came from Locke and English republicanism.

Jefferson said that his purpose in writing the Declaration was to express a shared understanding of “the American mind.” Over the course of a few days in June 1776, Thomas Jefferson laid out the most fundamental principles and central political beliefs of the American Revolution and of the People the Revolution created. In stating that certain central propositions are “self-evident” truths, Jefferson expressed what amounted to a common political creed. The “American Creed” has been commented upon by patriots and scholars ever since. In reexamining it today, we realize that this American Creed continues its role in providing cohesive force to a society not only divided by conflicting positions on controversial issues, but also united in seeking the fulfillment of its founding ideals.


“All Men are created equal”

The meaning of the idea that “All Men are created equal.” The Declaration of Independence states that among the “truths” that Americans hold to be “self-evident” is that “all Men are created equal.” What did Thomas Jefferson mean by this statement?
There are two ways that all “men”—all persons—might be “created equal.” One is that they are all by birth or naturally political equals. This means that no one is legitimately the ruler of others by birth and no one is by birth the subject of a ruler. The other is that human equality goes deeper than just political equality. In this sense, all people are considered of equal value and worth, or equal in the eyes of God. All are created moral equals.

In fact Jefferson intended both of these senses of natural equality. Late in life he stated that in composing the Declaration he was not stating original principles or ideas of his own. Instead, his writing “was intended to be an expression of the American mind.” Both senses of natural human equality were common beliefs of colonial Americans in 1776.

History of the idea of political equality. Ideas of natural political equality were developed in seventeenth-century England and exported to its colonies across the North Atlantic. They were the expressions of English republican thought by writers such as the so-called “Levellers” (1640s), republican political theorist Algernon Sidney (1623–1683), and (especially) John Locke in his Second Treatise (1690). All of these sources speak of natural human political equality flowing from their natural equality by birth. “Equals,” Sidney wrote, “can have no right [to rule] over each other.” Locke emphasized that political equality is an aspect of man’s natural equality. Jefferson cited English republican Richard Rumbold’s (1622–1685) graphic analogy that “none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” For these writers, since all are by nature political equals, legitimate government authority arises only by consent.

History of the idea of moral equality. The idea of the moral equality of human beings has more ancient origins. The equality and universal fraternity of humanity was a doctrine of the Stoic philosophers of the third century BC. These ideas were taken up and spread by Christianity, which held that each person has an immortal soul and that each person is equal in the sight of God. The Apostle Paul (5 AD–67) famously expressed this egalitarianism, saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Centuries later, the Protestant Reformation deepened the idea of universal moral and political equality in the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” which attacked church hierarchy, and in various aspects of self-rule in church government.

Equality and the American mind. In colonial America, where Christianity was already deeply established, the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that swept the colonies from the 1730s to the 1760s (a Second Great Awakening would take place in the nineteenth century), helped spread the idea of universal moral human equality, including equality among social classes. By the eve of the Revolution, universal human equality was a common American idea. It is little wonder that the Virginia Declaration of Rights—adopted on June 12, 1776 while Jefferson was working on his draft Declaration—asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent….”

unalienable rights
“All Men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
The meaning of the term “unalienable Rights.” The Declaration of Independence states “all Men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” What does “unalienable Rights” mean? (In the final draft edited by Congress, the word “inalienable” was inadvertently changed to “unalienable” by a copyist.)

Inalienable rights are rights that we are unable to give up, even if we want to. According to the concept of inalienable rights found in the Declaration of Independence, liberty is such a right. That means that if we signed a contract to be a slave, we would not have an obligation to keep it; and despite the contract, no one would have a right to our services. Having rights that are inalienable does not mean they cannot be attacked by our being arbitrarily killed, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed. It means that such acts are not morally justified and that we have a ground for moral complaint.

History of the idea of “inalienable Rights.” One key to understanding “inalienable” rights (as distinguished from ordinary, “alienable” rights) is found by turning to one of Thomas Jefferson’s rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence. There, he originally wrote that “all men” are “endowed by their Creator with [inherent &] inalienable rights….” Shortly before Jefferson wrote these words, the Virginia Declaration of Rights stated:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
The similarity of this passage in the Virginia Declaration and Jefferson’s version is readily apparent. The Virginia Declaration defines “inherent” rights as those that “all men” “cannot … divest their posterity.” The key words here are “inherent” and “cannot.” The rights Jefferson calls both inherent and inalienable are those that we are unable to get rid of, for the simple reason that they are part of us, helping to define what we are.

The dictionary tells us that “inherent” means “involved in the constitution or essential character of something.” Thus “inalienable” rights are inherent in us because they refer to specific qualities that make us human beings. Without them we lose our humanity. With no inherent right to life and liberty, we would be in the same position as ordinary animals such as cattle or sheep. Human beings are different: our right not to be treated like an animal is part of our very nature that we are powerless to change. We are unable to change our nature, and so we are unable to rid ourselves of certain of our essential qualities, such as the capacity to make moral choices. These “qualities” are the basis of our “inalienable rights.”

pursuit of happiness

“Life, liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
The meaning of the term “Pursuit of Happiness.” In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson announced that every human being has “certain unalienable rights,” among which are those to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What did he mean by “the pursuit of happiness”?

To answer this, we should bear in mind that in writing the Declaration, Jefferson said he was not attempting to put forth an original philosophy of his own. Rather, it “was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” that is, the opinions held by most if not all Americans of his time. If is difficult, however, to say with precision what most Americans in 1776 thought “the pursuit of happiness” meant.

The history of the term “Pursuit of happiness.” Since Jefferson did not invent the phrase, the best we can do is discover its source and determine what it meant to its originator. Almost surely, Jefferson read about the “pursuit of happiness” in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in which he discusses how the human mind operates:

As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger [the] ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general…the more are we free from [obedience to an immediate impulse for some pleasure].

What the “pursuit of happiness” is. Every day we make numerous choices in deciding what course of action will add to our well-being—what will make us happy. Making these choices is the pursuit of happiness. The results of our choices are not all equal: we soon discover that choosing some pleasures, especially following momentary impulses, leads not to happiness but to pain. But if we use our faculty of foresight, recalling past experience, we learn to postpone immediate gratification and see what choices are really in our interest. Thus, learning self-control based on experience is essential to happiness.

Pursuing happiness as an inalienable right. According to Locke, this continuous process of choosing is part of human beings’ unchangeable nature. Since our nature compels us to constantly make choices about what we believe gives us well-being, such choosing is inherent in our nature—in Jefferson’s terms, it is inalienable. Accordingly, our right to make these choices is inalienable, and, unless our actions attack the rights of others, it is wrong for government to interfere.

Private happiness, public happiness, and moral goodness. Locke, Jefferson, and others learned from ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle, that these choices have ethical or moral dimensions: those without moral virtue cannot be happy. Many of our choices have social consequences and therefore have a civic dimension when they enhance or subtract from “public happiness.” Thus “the pursuit of happiness” must refer both to public and to private happiness.

From the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

The meaning of the term “justice.” The Preamble states that one of the Constitution’s purposes is to “establish Justice.” What is meant by justice? Justice refers generally to fairness. The meaning of justice has been contested for more than 2,000 years of human history and remains contested today. The concept of justice has long been divided into three types: distributive justice, procedural justice, and corrective justice.

Distributive justice. Distributive justice refers to the fairness of the distribution of benefits and burdens among persons or groups in society.

Benefits may be such things as pay for work or the right to speak or vote. They may include almost anything that can be distributed among a group of people that would be considered useful or desirable, such as praise, awards, opportunities for education, jobs, membership in organizations, or money.

Burdens may include obligations, such as homework or chores, working to earn money, paying taxes, serving on juries, or caring for another person. They may include almost anything that can be distributed among a group of people that would be considered undesirable, such as blame or punishment for wrongdoing.
Issues and controversies over the fair distribution of benefits and burdens in society are very common and often highly contested, such as debates over health care benefits and taxes.

Phrases in the Constitution that are designed to promote distributive justice include:
  • Article IV. Section 2. 1. The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
  • Amendment XIV. Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
  • Amendment XV. Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
  • Amendment XIX. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
  • Amendment XXIV. Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
  • Amendment XXVI. Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

Procedural justice. Procedural justice refers to the fairness of procedures or ways of doing things. More specifically, procedural justice refers to the following:
  • the fairness of how information is gathered
  • the fairness of how decisions are made
Procedural justice does not refer to the fairness of decisions themselves. That is a matter of either distributive or corrective justice. The goals of procedural justice are the following:
  • to increase the chances that all information necessary for making wise and just decisions is gathered
  • to ensure the wise and just use of information in the making of decisions
  • to protect the right to privacy, human dignity, freedom, and other important values and interests such as distributive and corrective justice
  • to promote efficiency
Scholars and others who have studied procedural justice often claim that it is the keystone of liberty or the heart of the law. Observers of world affairs have sometimes claimed that the degree of procedural justice present in a country is a good indicator of the degree of freedom, respect for human rights, and other basic rights in that country. A lack of procedural justice is often considered an indication of an authoritarian or totalitarian political system. Respect for procedural justice is often a key indicator of a democratic political system.

Phrases in the Constitution designed to promote procedural justice include:
  • Article I, Section 9. The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it. No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.
  • Article III, Section 3. The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
  • Amendment V. No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
  • Amendment VI. In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
  • Amendment VII. In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Corrective justice. Corrective justice concerns the fairness of responses to wrongs or injuries suffered by a person or group. Fair responses to wrongs and injuries may vary widely. In some instances, one may ignore what has happened, forgive the person causing the wrong or injury, or use the situation to educate the person to prevent a repetition of the event. In other situations, one might wish to require a person to compensate in one way or another for a wrong or injury done to others. In some instances, courts of law may punish wrongdoers by fines, imprisonment, or even death.

Corrective justice has one principal goal: the fair correction of a wrong or injury. In addition, we may want to prevent or discourage future wrongful or careless conduct by teaching a lesson to the wrongdoer or making an example of him or her. Thus, the purposes or goals of corrective justice are the following:
  • correction – proposing a remedy or imposing a penalty to set things right in a fair way
  • prevention – responding to a wrongdoing in a way that will prevent the responsible person from doing wrong again
  • deterrence – discouraging other people from committing wrongs and injuries for fear of the consequences
Correction, prevention, and deterrence are essential to the very existence of society. Without efforts to serve these goals, disorder and chaos may result. Ensuring fair responses to wrongs and injuries is important not only with regard to criminal behavior and civil matters but also in families, schools, and other areas of the private sector.
Phrases in the Constitution that are designed to promote corrective justice include:
  • Amendment VIII. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  • Article III, Section 3.2. No Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Live of the Person attainted.


domestic tranquility

The meaning of the term “domestic Tranquility.”
The Preamble to the Constitution states that one of its purposes is to “insure domestic Tranquility.” What does this term mean, and why was it included in the Preamble?

Today, laws enacted by Congress that promote domestic tranquility include those dealing with terrorism, providing government the capacity to enforce the laws and keep the peace, providing for national security, providing for and protecting peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, and providing citizens with peaceful means of attempting to monitor the actions of their government and air their grievances.

The Framers had good reason to seek to “insure” domestic tranquility. Literally “domestic Tranquility” means peace and quiet at home—at home in America, as opposed to in other nations. Tranquility for the Framers meant the absence of riots, rebellions, and similar symptoms of social disorder. They were greatly concerned with domestic tranquility because social disorder had become an increasingly fearful, dangerous, and common state of affairs in the new states. It threatened the political stability of the country, which had a weak central government that could not control the conflicts that were taking place in the states.

The history of the Framers’ concern with domestic tranquility. Economic turmoil and violence in post-Revolutionary America, 1783–87. Social disorder after the Revolutionary War was caused mainly by economic conflict between farmers and merchants. During the Revolution, farmers borrowed money to meet the demand for food for domestic and foreign armed forces, along with civilian demand. At the end of the war, farmers could no longer sell as much of their produce as before. But the people who had loaned them money demanded that they pay back the loans. At the same time, state governments demanded high property taxes from farmers to pay off debt caused by fighting the British. Without funds for repayment, farmers’ property was seized and auctioned off. Those unable to pay their debts were imprisoned. High inflation made matters worse for the newly free states.

Framers demand redress of grievances. The fight for freedom from British oppression seemed to have been futile to the farmers and others being bankrupted and imprisoned. Some decided to burn down courthouses since records of private debts and public taxes were held there. And there, too, trials of bankrupt people awaiting debtors’ prison were held. By the mid-1780s, acts of violence protesting these conditions had become commonplace. One demand of the people in debt was that states issue paper currency for payment of debts, since there was an acute shortage of gold and silver coins. In Exeter, New Hampshire, in September 1786, farmers surrounded the state legislature and demanded that debt be canceled and paper currency issued. Elsewhere (for example, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, and Virginia), farmers burned down courthouses.

Inadequate government response to disorder. Most of these riotous uprisings were sooner or later defeated. But the new nation’s most prominent leaders were very concerned at the government's inability to deal with the growing disorder. The lack of a sufficiently powerful central government was apparent to leaders such as George Washington and James Madison. It was a principal reason that Madison and others called for a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786, to “Remedy Defects of the Federal Government.”

Shays’ Rebellion and the U.S. Constitution. As the Annapolis Convention met, the most serious of these disorders had hardly begun. This was Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts that began in August 1786 and stretched into 1787. The conflict pitted over-taxed farmers against wealthy merchant Loyalists, whose property had been restored after the Revolution. This extensive, sometimes bloody conflict convinced state leaders that the Articles of Confederation must be amended. With popular rebellion seemingly out of control, the case for revising the Articles of Confederation was greatly strengthened. The result was the Philadelphia Convention that opened in May, resulting in the creation of a new Constitution that greatly increased the powers of the federal government.

general welfare
The meaning of the term "general Welfare." The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution states that one of its purposes is to promote the “general Welfare.” Article I, Sec. 8. 1. of the Constitution states that Congress shall have power “to lay and collect Taxes [and] Duties, …to…provide for the… general Welfare of the United States….” This raises two questions: What does “general Welfare” mean, and what powers did the Constitution give to Congress to promote the general welfare?

The “general Welfare” refers to the well-being of the nation and its people. General welfare refers to the welfare of all of the people in the nation, not a select few or even a majority at the expense of a minority. Laws passed by Congress that promote the general welfare might include, for example, laws that provide for clean air and water and other elements of a healthy environment, that provide for health care for all people, that provide for public safety and protection against terrorism or foreign powers, that provide for equal educational opportunity, and that provide for safe highways, bridges, and tunnels.

The history of controversy over what powers the Constitution gives to Congress in the “general Welfare” clause. People had disagreed over what powers the Constitution gives to Congress to promote “the general Welfare” even before the Constitution was ratified in 1788, and the topic is still debated today: Does the “general welfare clause” (Sec. 8) give Congress the power to spend taxes on anything it pleases? Or does it refer only to spending on the enumerated powers listed in Article I, Sec. 8. 1.?

The Anti-Federalists were opponents of ratification of the Constitution. Before its ratification, they argued that the “general Welfare” provision of Article I gave Congress unlimited powers to legislate whatever they wished. The central government, they said, would be all-powerful and a dangerous threat to liberty.

Position 1. Congressional powers should be limited to spending on its enumerated powers. James Madison has been called the “Father of the Constitution.” He is one of the authors of the Federalist Papers that supported the ratification of the Constitution. In response to the Anti-Federalist claim that the Constitution gave unlimited powers to Congress, he argued that “the powers delegated by the Constitution to Congress and the rest of the federal government are few and defined.” “Few and defined” means that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to spend taxes on whatever it chooses but limits it to spending on the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution.

Position 2. Congressional powers are not limited to its enumerated powers. Alexander Hamilton was one of the framers of the Constitution and authors of the Federalist papers. He argued that the general welfare clause allowed Congress to tax and spend for the general welfare without being limited by the enumerated powers.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the meaning of the general welfare clause. Under our Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States is given the power to interpret the meaning of the Constitution. The Supreme Court did not rule on the meaning of the general welfare clause unit 1930. Then, in the case of the United States v. Butler (1936), the Court agreed with Hamilton’s position that the clause did not limit Congress to its enumerated powers. But the Court did say that spending must be limited to matters promoting the national, not local, welfare.

The following year, in Helvering v. Davis (1937), the Court declared that the Social Security Act of 1935 was constitutional. In doing so, the Court accepted Hamilton's expansive view of the general welfare clause.

Continuing controversy over the general welfare clause. In recent decades, arguments have again arisen about whether congressional powers under the general welfare clause can be used to allow Congress to legislate on whatever it decides furthers the general welfare. One side argues that government under the U.S. Constitution is one of “enumerated powers” limiting congressional powers to those listed in the Constitution. The other side takes the Hamiltonian position and that of the U.S. Supreme Court in the above cases in support of its view that the powers of Congress are not limited to those enumerated in the Constitution.

Whichever of these positions dominates will have a significant impact on American government and the American people. In 2010, when many members of Congress were asked what part of the Constitution justified how they wanted federal money to be spent, they claimed their positions were justified by the general welfare clause. Disagreements over the interpretation of the general welfare clause are likely to continue.


CCE LogoThis site is brought to you by the Center for Civic Education. The Center's mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. The Center has reached more than 30 million students and their teachers since 1965. Learn more.

Center for Civic Education

5115 Douglas Fir Road, Suite J
Calabasas, CA 91302

  Phone: (818) 591-9321

  Email: web@civiced.org

  Media Inquiries: cce@civiced.org

  Website: www.civiced.org

© Center for Civic Education