Preamble to the US Constitution

Preamble to American Constitution
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The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution summarizes the Founding Fathers’ intention to create a federal government dedicated to ensuring that “We the People” always live in a safe, peaceful, healthy, well-defended—and most of all—free nation.  The preamble states:

“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.”

As the Founders intended, the Preamble has no force in law. It grants no powers to the federal or state governments, nor does it limit the scope of future government actions. As a result, the Preamble has never been cited by any federal court, including the U.S. Supreme Court, in deciding cases dealing with constitutional issues.

Also known as the “Enacting Clause,” the Preamble did not become a part of the Constitution until the final few days of the Constitutional Convention after Gouverneur Morris, who had also signed the Articles of Confederation, pressed for its inclusion. Before it was drafted, the Preamble had not been proposed or discussed on the floor of the convention.

The first version of the preamble did not refer to, “We the People of the United States…” Instead, it referred to the people of the individual states. The word “people” did not appear, and the phrase “the United States” was followed by a listing of the states as they appeared on the map from north to south. However, the Framers changed to the final version when they realized that the Constitution would go into effect as soon as nine states gave their approval, whether any of the remaining states had ratified it or not.

The Value of the Preamble

The Preamble explains why we have and need the Constitution. It also gives us the best summary we will ever have of what the Founders were considering as they hashed out the basics of the three branches of government.

In his highly acclaimed book, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Justice Joseph Story wrote of the Preamble, “its true office is to expound the nature and extent and application of the powers actually conferred by the Constitution.”

In addition, no less noted authority on the Constitution than Alexander Hamilton himself, in Federalist No. 84, stated that the Preamble gives us “a better recognition of popular rights than volumes of those aphorisms which make the principal figure in several of our State bills of rights, and which would sound much better in a treatise of ethics than in a constitution of government.”

James Madison, one of the leading architects of the Constitution, may have put it best when he wrote in The Federalist No. 49:

[T]he people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived . . . .

While is common and understandable to think of the Preamble as merely a grand rhetorical “preview” of the Constitution, with no without meaningful effect, this is not entirely the case. The Preamble has been called the “Enacting Clause” or “Enabling Clause” of the Constitution, meaning that it confirms the American peoples’ freely agreed-to adoption of the Constitution—through the state ratification process—as the exclusive document conferring and defining the powers of government and the rights of citizens. However, the Framers of the Constitution clearly understood that in the legal context of 1787, preambles to legal documents were not binding provisions and thus should not be used to justify the expansion, contraction, or denial of any of the substantive terms in the remainder of the Constitution.

Most importantly, the Preamble confirmed that the Constitution was being created and enacted by the collective “People of the United States,” meaning that “We the People,” rather than the government, “own” the Constitution and are thus ultimately responsible for its continued existence and interpretation. 

Understand the Preamble, Understand the Constitution

Each phrase in the Preamble helps explain the purpose of the Constitution as envisioned by the Framers.

‘We the People’

This well-known key phrase means that the Constitution incorporates the visions of all Americans and that the rights and freedoms bestowed by the document belong to all citizens of the United States of America.

‘In order to form a more perfect union’

The phrase recognizes that the old government based on the Articles of Confederation was extremely inflexible and limited in scope, making it hard for the government to respond to the changing needs of the people over time. 

‘Establish justice’

The lack of a system of justice ensuring fair and equal treatment of the people had been the primary reason for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution against England. The Framers wanted to ensure a fair and equal system of justice for all Americans.

‘Insure domestic tranquility’

The Constitutional Convention was held shortly after Shays’ Rebellion, a bloody uprising of farmers in Massachusetts against the state caused by the monetary debt crisis at the end of the Revolutionary War. In this phrase, the Framers were responding to fears that the new government would be unable to keep peace within the nation’s borders.

‘Provide for the common defense’

The Framers were acutely aware that the new nation remained extremely vulnerable to attacks by foreign nations and that no individual state had the power to repel such attacks. Thus, the need for a unified, coordinated effort to defend the nation would always be a vital function of the U.S. federal government.

‘Promote the general welfare’

The Framers also recognized that the general well-being of the American citizens would be another key responsibility of the federal government.

‘Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’

The phrase confirms the Framer’s vision that the very purpose of the Constitution is to protect the nation’s blood-earned rights for liberty, justice, and freedom from a tyrannical government.

‘Ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America’

Simply stated, the Constitution and the government it embodies are created by the people, and that it is the people who give America its power.

The Preamble in Court

While the Preamble has no legal standing, the courts have used it in trying to interpret the meaning and intent of various sections of the Constitution as they apply to modern legal situations. In this way, courts have found the Preamble useful in determining the “spirit” of the Constitution.

Since the Constitution's enactment, the Supreme Court of the United States has cited the Preamble in several important decisions. However, the Court largely disclaimed the legal importance of the Preamble in making those decisions. As Justice Story noted in his Commentaries, “the Preamble never can be resorted to, to enlarge the powers confided to the general government or any of its departments.”

The Supreme Court subsequently endorsed Justice Story's view of the Preamble, holding in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that, "while the Constitution's introductory paragraph indicates the general purposes for which the people ordained and established the Constitution, it has never been regarded by the Court as the source of any substantive power conferred on the federal government.” While the Supreme Court has not viewed the Preamble as having any direct, substantive legal effect, the Court has referenced its broad general rules to confirm and reinforce its interpretation of other provisions within the Constitution. As such, while the Preamble does not have any specific legal status, Justice Story's observation that the true purpose of the Preamble is to enlarge on the nature, and extent, and application of the powers actually conferred by the Constitution.

More broadly, while the Preamble may have little significance in a court of law, the preface to the Constitution remains an important part of the nation's constitutional dialogue, inspiring and fostering broader understandings of the American system of government.

Whose Government is it and What is it For?

The Preamble contains what may be the most important three words in our nation’s history: “We the People.” Those three words, along with the brief balance of the Preamble, establish the very basis of our system of “federalism,” under which the states and central government are granted both shared and exclusive powers, but only with the approval of “We the people.”

Compare the Constitution’s Preamble to its counterpart in the Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation. In that compact, the states alone formed “a firm league of friendship, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare” and agreed to protect each other “against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretence whatever.”

Clearly, the Preamble sets the Constitution apart from the Articles of Confederation as being an agreement among the people, rather than the states, and placing an emphasis on rights and freedoms above the military protection of the individual states. 

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Preamble to the US Constitution." ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, May 16). Preamble to the US Constitution. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Preamble to the US Constitution." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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