"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."
While these oft-repeated words which begin the Constitution of the United States are familiar to millions, few give real thought to their meaning. After all, they offer no guarantees of freedoms, such as those found in the Bill of Rights; likewise, they fail to delineate any portion of the federal government, as is found in the main text. Just what purpose is served by the preamble of the Constitution?
In a very real sense, the preamble is a framework for what is to follow in later articles and clauses of the Constitution. More than just a series of eloquent words, the preamble asserts a mandate: the sovereignty of the people over the mechanisms of government.
The Supreme Court, for example, has repeatedly referred to the preamble as direct evidence of the origin, scope and purpose of the Constitution. Roger B. Taney, who was a member of the Court from 1836 to 1864, declared, "The words 'people of the United States' and 'citizens' are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the government through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the 'sovereign people,' and every citizen is one of this people and a constituent member of this sovereignty."
Indeed, the paramount issue for any democracy is the relationship of the people to their government, and of the government to the people's rights and interests. It is no less than the fundamental relationship which distinguishes the government of this country from those which concentrate authority in an omnipotent government free of control by its people.
In short, the people of the United States have the last word over the acts of their government. They are the sovereign source from which the government draws its authority to act.
While the language of the preamble is a lasting reminder of the power of the people, its inclusion in the Constitution was not intended merely to provide an aesthetic flourish. The reference to "we, the People" was a direct attempt to contribute to national unity in the early days of our nation.
As has been recounted in previous articles in this series, fear of a strong central government for the United States was very strong. The states had, for several years, operated virtually independent of one another. Each had its own system of coinage and felt few, if any, responsibilities toward the weak national government in existence under the Articles of Confederation.
In fact, during the Philadelphia convention of 1787, the original preamble proposed by the Committee of Detail read as follows: "We the People of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity."
While this language resulted in no immediate objections, many delegates felt that the recitation of each state's name in the preamble emphasized the fractionalization of the union. Among these was Gouverneur Morris of the Pennsylvania delegation. When he was appointed to the Committee of Style, which was given the important task of drafting a final version of the proposed Constitution, he saw his opportunity to deal with that oversight.
When Morris inserted the line, "We the People of the United States" in the Committee of Style's report, he was largely operating from a practical position. The other members of his committee had -- with good reason -- seen little reason to pledge the support of any individual state to the document. Rather than a recitation of each state's name, they thought, it would be more advantageous to use a more generic term.
In addition, the more detailed description of the Constitution's purposes -- "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" provided the fledgling federal government with an expanded authority in times of crisis. For example, the phrase "to provide for the common defense" expands the authority of the Congress to pass any measures -- within the limits of existing law -- which are crucial to the security of the nation.
It is unlikely that the members of the Committee of Style, or even the convention as a whole, could have foreseen the storm of controversy stirred by the final draft of the preamble. The Antifederalist forces at the various state ratifying conventions railed against it, seeing in it a blatant attempt by the federal government to steamroll over the states, invoking the name of "the People" as an excuse.
Among those vehemently opposed to the new preamble was Patrick Henry, the most prominent Antifederalist at the Virginia ratifying convention. Furious with the work of the Philadelphia convention, he rose at one point in the debates and asked, "Who authorizes gentlemen to speak the language of We, the people, instead of We, the states? …The people gave them no power to use their name.” Then, in an obvious reference to fellow Virginian George Washington, who had presided over the constitutional convention, Henry demanded, "Even from that illustrious man who saved us by his valor, I would have a reason for this conduct!"
As 200 years of American history has proven, Henry was overly fearful of the role of the federal government. Rather than being an excuse for federal domination of the states, the preamble serves as a check against excesses and abuses. The government of the United States of America is not the president, the members of Congress or the Supreme Court. It is the people who control its processes and authorize its actions.
In that sense, the preamble sets down in writing a very important democratic concept: the consent of the governed. A unique statement some 200 years ago, its basic principles have been copied by other nations, with varying degrees of success, in the two centuries since then. The words of the preamble have served as an inspiration for millions of men and women throughout the world. Our continued adherence to the principle espoused in the preamble of the Constitution is a testimonial to the desire of all people to be truly free.