The part of the Constitution that we read first is the part of the original Constitution that was written last. The Preamble, which sets forth the noble purposes for which the Constitution is "ordained and established," was composed by the constitutional convention's Committee of Style. The committee sat between September 8 and September 11, 1787, after the Convention had debated and voted on all of the substantive provisions of the Constitution; its mandate was to arrange and harmonize the wording of the resolutions adopted by the delegates during the preceding four months. The task of actually drafting the document fell to gouverneur morris of New York, and so the authorship of the Preamble must be ascribed to him.
Morris made two major changes in the Preamble as it was reported by the Committee of Detail and referred to the Committee of Style. The earlier version had begun, "We, the people of the states of …" and then had listed the thirteen states in order, from north to south; Morris changed this to the now familiar "We, the people of the United States.…" And the earlier version had merely stated that the people ordained and established the Constitution; Morris added the list of purposes for which they did so. Each of these changes has been the occasion of some controversy.
The reference to the "people of the United States" was a source of irritation to the Anti-Federalists. patrick henry, for example, in the Virginia ratifying convention, denounced the use of the phrase as a harbinger of a national despotism. The Convention, he said, should have written instead, "We, the States.…" In anti-federalist constitutional thought, only the states, as the existing political units, to which the people had already delegated all the powers of government, could constitute a federal union and redelegate some of their powers to the national government. Reference to the constituent authority of "the people of the United States" seemed to imply consolidation, not confederation.
It is unlikely that Morris, the Committee of Style, or the Convention had any such implication in mind. The Convention had approved a preamble that referred to the people of all thirteen states. The committee had to "harmonize" that with the provision that the Constitution would become effective when it was ratified by any nine states. There would likely be a time, therefore, when there would be nine states in the Union and four outside of it; but no one could predict which would be the nine and which the four. So long as the Constitution would become effective with less than thirteen states in the Union, listing the thirteen states in the Preamble would be misleading and inaccurate. Whichever states did ratify the Constitution would be the "United States," and it would be the people of those "United States" that had ordained the Constitution. Moreover, the Constitution provided for the future admission of additional states, and the people of those states, too, would ordain and establish the Constitution.
But Henry's objection was ill-founded for another reason. The declaration of independence had pronounced the Americans "one people" and had given to their political Union the name of the "United States of America." The states and the Union had been born together on July 4, 1776, when a new nation was brought forth upon this continent. The one people certainly possessed the right to alter or abolish their former government and to establish a new government more conducive to their future safety and happiness. "We, the people of the United States," are identical to the "one people" that in the Declaration of Independence dissolved the political bonds that formerly connected us to Great Britain.
The list of purposes for ordaining and establishing the Constitution is perhaps more perplexing. The Convention had never debated or voted on such a list; and yet each delegate must have had some such purposes in mind throughout the deliberations. How else could he have gauged or judged the propriety of the measures upon which he did debate and vote? Morris and the Committee of Style must have thought it fitting to provide this terse apologia for their summer's deliberations; and the delegates apparently agreed, for there is no record of any objection to the Preamble as it was reported by the committee.
The Preamble lists the purposes for which the Constitution was created: to form a more perfect Union, to establish justice, to insure domestic tranquillity, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty, not only for the founding generation but also for "posterity." It, in effect, declares to a candid world the causes for which the people have chosen to replace the articles of confederation with a new Constitution. The purposes listed in the Preamble are consistent with what the Declaration of Independence asserts to be the end of all governments instituted among men, namely to secure the equal and inalienable natural rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Preamble does not purport to create any offices or to confer any powers; as joseph story later wrote, "Its true office is to expound the nature and extent and application of the powers actually conferred by the Constitution, and not substantially to create them." Although commentators on the constitution have, over the years, purported to find in the Preamble justification for the exercise of inherent powers of government, no court has ever held that the Preamble independently grants power to the government or to any of its officers or agencies. In fact, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court specifically rejected that interpretation.
The Preamble concludes by proclaiming that the people "do ordain and establish this Constitution." edward s. corwin correctly pointed to the active voice and present tense of this phrase. The act of constituting a government occurs at a particular moment in time; but the authority of the Constitution depends on the continuous consent of the governed. The people, as Corwin wrote, " 'do ordain and establish,' not did ordain and establish." Thus does the Preamble play its role in the preservation of constitutional government. An afterthought of the Constitutional Convention, a rhetorical flourish by the Committee of Style, the Preamble has been memorized by school-children and declaimed by orators and statesmen on public occasions for two centuries. And every time it is recited it calls to mind the purposes of our federal Union and unites the people more firmly to the cause of republican liberty.
Dennis J. Mahoney
Corwin, Edward S. 1920 The Constitution and What It Means Today. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Eidelberg, Paul 1968 The Political Philosophy of the Constitution. New York: Free Press.
Rossiter, Clinton 1966 1787: The Grand Convention. New York: Macmillan.
pre·am·ble / ˈprēˌambəl/ • n. a preliminary or preparatory statement; an introduction: what she said was by way of a preamble | I gave him the bad news without preamble. ∎ Law the introductory part of a statute or deed, stating its purpose, aims, and justification. DERIVATIVES: pre·am·bu·lar / prēˈambyələr/ adj. ( formal ).
A clause at the beginning of a constitution or statute explaining the reasons for its enactment and the objectives it seeks to attain.
Generally a preamble is a declaration by the legislature of the reasons for the passage of the statute, and it aids in the interpretation of any ambiguities within the statute to which it is prefixed. It has been held, however, that a preamble is not an essential part of an act, and it neither enlarges nor confers powers.