'We, the People': The Power of a Familiar Phrase Now

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama said repeatedly, "We, the people," those key and memorable initial words of the preamble to the Constitution, effectively moving us from 1776 to today.

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Though Barack Obama had a little verbal stumble during his oath of office, his inaugural address was evidence again of how good the president gets when he's delivering a speech he's prepared versus when he speaks off the cuff or during a debate (that's when the "uhs" tend to come in). Wisely, he adhered pretty closely to the notes he'd prepared, and was able to convey strong emotion in his short speech, which was inspirational and growth-of-America affirming at the same time that it reminded us that we're all together in this, and hinted at what the future might be like if we can't find a way to get along.

His uniform was a familiar one: Dark suit, crisp white shirt, a periwinkle tie and that omnipresent flag pin we saw throughout the debates. Also familiar was this oratory style, "at times like a pastor, at times soaring," said one NBC News commentator. And then there were the words in the speech itself. He said repeatedly, "We, the people," those key and memorable initial words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. He said it a total of five times, with more we's (nearly 100 of them, by my count) peppered throughout.

The "We, the peoples" were these:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. 

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. 

We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. 

Linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, who followed today's swearing in and address and Obama's first inauguration as well, told me that Obama's 2009 speech included just one use of "We the People," at the end of that speech's second paragraph: "...We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents." In today's address, however, Obama "relied on that rhetorical device as a repetitive touchstone, tying the 'here and now' of his speech to the legacy of the founding fathers," Zimmer said, explaining that the phrase has a dual purpose: elevating the presidential rhetoric "by connecting it to the opening words of the Constitution, recognized by all, and framing his call to collective action by emphasizing the inclusive solidarity of that powerful first-person plural pronoun."

We, of course, is a pronoun that even on its own speaks to collaboration and community ("we bear witness," "we affirm the promise of our democracy," and "we recall that what binds this nation ..." were just a few other we phrases in the speech), and it's a common pronoun for a politician to employ — but "we, the people" is particularly evocative, a link between current day and a common national history that it's difficult not to feel some pride or patriotism about.

Despite that historic refrain, Obama spoke about a lot of things that the founding fathers wouldn't have considered. He talked about climate change, about gay marriage and equal rights, about revamping the tax code, about geographically far-flung international relationships, about equal pay for women, and about Medicare and Social Security, with the caveat that "all of society's ills" can't be "cured through government alone." We're going to have new challenges, he said, and we're going to have to deal with them. Again we get a mix of new and old in a paragraph explaining that "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.  Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people."

Zimmer noted that the verbs used in the "we the people" sentences are declare, understand, and still believe, the latter of which he used three times. "By joining together in a shared declaration, understanding, and belief, Obama suggests, the country can make progress and transcend its divisions. The rhetorical frame allows him to take on modern challenges (climate change or gay rights, for instance), while still presenting policy initiatives of his second term as continuations of bedrock American principles: 'what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.'"

At the same time, Obama's refrain of "we" and the need to collaborate and come together seem a one-two punch, with a veiled pre-indictment of those likely to insist on stalling or dragging their feet in future discussions — those who refuse to behave as a member of "we, the people." When he says, "Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness," he's saying, we all have a right to our own opinions. But when he says, "Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time," he's saying we need to get over ourselves (I'm paraphrasing, of course), and come together because there are some important things we have to do. And those who refuse to do that, on either side, will be guilty of not just disagreeing, but of refusing to act in their time, of refusing to be a member of "the people." 

And so, "we, the people" effectively moves us from 1776 to today, and, as Obama says in the latter part of his speech, "it is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began." Let's hope we are up to the task.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.