Signed in convention September 17, 1787. Ratified June 21, 1788.
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 preamble is the introduction to the Constitution. It outlines the general goals of the framers: to create a just government and to ensure peace, an adequate national defense and a healthy, free nation. With its first three words, “We the People,” the preamble emphasizes that the nation is to be ruled by the people - not a king or a dictator, not the president, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress or state legislators. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1905 (Jacobson v. Massachusetts) that the preamble is not a source of federal power or individuals' rights. Rather, all rights and powers are set out in the articles and amendments that follow.
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The introductory passage to the Constitution is known as the Preamble, although the original text does not give it that title. The Preamble states the general purposes of the Constitution. After winning independence from the British in the Revolutionary War, Americans sought to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” through a permanent form of government. Their first attempt, the Articles of Confederation, was a loose association of the thirteen independent states. Ratified in 1781, the Articles existed only six years before a new Constitution was proposed in 1787.
Writing in the first of the Federalist papers, a series of newspaper articles supporting the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton pointed out the unique status of the American people in creating their new government:
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political institutions on accident and force.”
We the People…
These first three words of the Constitution are the most important. They clearly state that the people—not the king, not the legislature, not the courts—are the true rulers in American government. This principle is known as popular sovereignty.
But who are “We the People”? This question troubled the nation for centuries. As Lucy Stone, one of America’s first advocates for women’s rights, asked in 1853: “‘We the People’? Which ‘We the People’? The women were not included.” Neither were white males who did not own property, American Indians, or African Americans—slave or free. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the Supreme Court, described this limitation:
“For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution, we need look no further than the first three words of the document’s preamble: ‘We the People.’ When the founding fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America’s citizens. … The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not...have imagined, nor would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendant of an African slave.”
Through the amendment process, more and more Americans were eventually included in the Constitution’s definition of “We the People.” After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the vote. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote nationwide, and in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment extended suffrage to eighteen-year-olds.
... of the United States ...
Like most documents, the Constitution needed a good editor. That person was Gouverneur Morris, who served on the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Style. Morris was the Constitution’s chief draftsman, while James Madison was the chief architect. Morris’s task was to shape the verbiage of committees into ringing prose. He commented on his work years later: “Having rejected redundant and equivocal terms, I believed it to be as clear as our language would permit.”
In the Constitution’s Preamble, Morris’s phrasing had substantive as well as stylistic consequences. The original draft of the Preamble referred to all thirteen states. But, in part because no one knew exactly which states would become the nine required to ratify the Constitution, Morris condensed the Preamble into the familiar words of today: “We the People of the United States.”
Even after the Constitution’s ratification, the United States was still evolving from a loose confederation of states into a cohesive national union. Only the Civil War finally achieved the latter. As historian Shelby Foote noted: “Before the war, it was said, ‘The United States are.’...After the war, it was always ‘the United States is.’...And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’”
… in Order to form a more perfect Union …
The first constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, was a failure—or so many advocates of a stronger central government believed. Under the Articles, the states retained virtually all powers, and the national government was considered merely a “firm league of friendship” among them.
After only five years under the Articles, trade problems among the states prompted a conference at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786. There, Alexander Hamilton made a motion, adopted by the conference, that a convention be held in Philadelphia in 1787 to amend “such defects as may be discovered to exist” in the Articles. The Continental Congress approved of the plan, resolving that such a convention be held “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”
Once in Philadelphia, however, the convention delegates quickly scrapped the Articles altogether and began drafting a new constitution. Representing twelve states—all except Rhode Island—they convened on May 25, 1787. Under the leadership of George Washington, the delegates met behind closed doors for almost four months. Their final product, signed on September 17, was presented to Congress, which then submitted it to the states for ratification. The Constitution was ratified in 1788, and the new government took office in 1789 with George Washington as president. A revolution had been achieved without a single drop of blood. A more perfect union had begun.
… 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 …
The Preamble sets forth the Constitution’s goals, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an independent source of rights. For instance, one cannot file a lawsuit based on the Preamble, as the Court held in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). Henning Jacobson had refused to comply with a Massachusetts law mandating vaccination for smallpox, claiming that the law violated his “liberty” as secured by the Preamble. The Court disagreed, saying: “Although...one of the declared objects of the Constitution was to secure the blessings of liberty..., no power can be exerted to that end by the United States, unless, apart from the Preamble, it be found in some express delegation of power, or in some power to be properly implied therefrom.”
… do ordain and establish …
Under the terms of the Preamble, “We the People,” not the states, “ordain and establish” the Constitution. During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison said that the difference between a government established by state legislatures and one founded on the people directly was “the true difference between a league or treaty, and a Constitution.” But Patrick Henry, who refused to attend the convention because he “smelt a rat,” took exception to the Preamble’s language. He argued that the convention had exceeded its power by abandoning the Articles of Confederation. Asked Henry during the Virginia ratifying convention: “Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the States?... The people gave them no power to use their name.”
But as specified in Article VII, the Constitution was ratified by the people through state conventions, not by the state legislatures. The Supreme Court pointed to this fact in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). Chief Justice John Marshall wrote for the unanimous Court: “The government proceeds directly from the people; is ‘ordained and established’ in the name of the people.... Its powers are granted by them and are to be exercised directly on them and for their benefit.” However, Justice Clarence Thomas and other members of the Rehnquist Court have disagreed with Marshall’s analysis. According to Thomas, the “source of the Constitution’s authority is the consent of the people of each individual state, not the consent of the undifferentiated people of the nation as a whole.” In this view, the states retain significant power over the national government.
… this Constitution for the United States of America …
The U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution of a nation still being used. From the beginning, Americans and others have disagreed about its relative merits. Federalists believed that, by creating a stronger national government, the Constitution would enable the United States to survive among the competing powers of Europe and provide a surer safeguard for liberty at home. Antifederalists feared that the new Constitution would create a new form of tyranny, especially since it lacked a bill of rights. Only by promising that the new Congress would make passage of a bill of rights its top priority did the Federalists secure ratification of the Constitution.
To British prime minister William Gladstone, the U.S. Constitution was “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” But according to Justice Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Constitution was “defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.” The Constitution was not perfect, but rather perfectible—through the amendment process.
At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin stated that he approved of the Constitution “with all its faults” because he did not think a better one was possible at that time. The oldest delegate to the convention at eighty-one, Franklin was too weak to give speeches and instead offered his opinions through written remarks delivered by a fellow Pennsylvania delegate. Franklin reportedly signed the Constitution with tears in his eyes. But if Franklin was willing to sign a document so full of errors, according to one tart-tongued Boston critic, “no wonder he shed a tear.” Perhaps Franklin’s last words to the convention gave the best assessment of the prospects of the new republic. As the other delegates were signing the Constitution, Franklin remarked to those nearby that, throughout the convention, he had wondered whether the sun carved on the back of George Washington’s chair was rising or setting. “Now,” he said, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
Linda R. Monk, J.D., is a constitutional scholar, journalist, and nationally award-winning author. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she twice received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media. Her books include The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People, and The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. For more than 25 years, Dr. Monk has written commentary for newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Huffington Post. In addition, she has appeared on MSNBC, C-SPAN, and NPR.