Most Americans recognize the phrase “We the People” as the beginning of something important. Many of them, however, associate it with the Declaration of Independence or even the Gettysburg Address. It is, of course, the opening phrase of the Preamble to the Constitution, the entrée into our fundamental law.
The Preamble, as its name implies, serves to introduce the Constitution. Because it neither grants nor denies powers to the federal government, some have been tempted to dismiss it as a mere preface having no real meaning of its own. Actually, the Preamble has been important in our constitutional development.
The Preamble evolved late in the Constitutional Convention. On September 6, 1787, after working for three and a half difficult months in drafting a new framework of government, the convention turned its labors over to a Committee on Style and Arrangement to put the document in a more organized and readable form. At this point, the Constitution’s opening section merely stated “We the People of the States of [with the thirteen states individually enumerated] do ordain, declare, and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.” Six days later, the committee reported back to the convention the draft of what was (after a few additional changes) the Constitution we know today. Especially striking was the altered Preamble, which now read:
We the People of the United States,
in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,
provide for the common defence,
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 revised draft with its changed Preamble was largely the work of Gouverneur Morris. One of the most prominent and colorful of the Constitution’s framers, Morris overcame the loss of a leg in a carriage accident to serve in the War of Independence as both soldier and member of Congress. Known for his aristocratic style, wit, and attraction to the opposite sex, he spoke more often in the convention than any other delegate and worked tirelessly to create the stronger national government that he believed the young country needed if it was to survive. Not only did he noticeably improve the style and flow of the document as a whole, he significantly transformed the text and meaning of its beginning. Gone was the enumeration of the states (a practical concession to the fact that some might not ratify the Constitution quickly), while the reference to the “People of the United States” represented Morris’s more national viewpoint. Clearly embodied also was the concept of popular sovereignty, the idea that political authority ultimately derives from the people. This had been one of the Declaration’s fundamental principles and is stated more clearly here than anywhere else in the Constitution. The Preamble went on to enumerate the ends of constitutional government. Especially noteworthy was its emphasis on union and liberty, which begin and end its summary of the Constitution’s goals.. Many have found in the Preamble a resonance with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and have seen it as providing a better sense of the Constitution’s guiding spirit than any other section of the document.
While the Preamble did not grant any specific powers or authority to the new government, it became important to our constitutional history in at least two ways. First, despite the clarity and precision of Morris’s prose, the Constitution, like all such documents, had to be adapted to new situations and interpreted. By stating the intended ends of government, the Preamble pointed its interpreters towards a better understanding of its meaning. In addition, by invoking the goals of a more perfect union, justice, and the general welfare, the Preamble has served as an inspiration for many, such as African Americans and women, who might feel excluded from the rest of the original document and who have sought to shape constitutional development in a more inclusive and democratic direction. (We must remember that, until the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the Constitution said nothing about equality of rights.) Perhaps the tendency to confuse the Preamble with the Declaration is understandable after all.
William C. Lowe
Dean and Professor of History
University of Arizona Global Campus
published September 2007