The Preamble to the Constitution: Definition, Summary, Purpose & Examples

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  • 0:00 The Articles of Confederation
  • 2:20 The New Constitution
  • 3:40 Analysis of the Preamble
  • 5:12 Interpreting 'We the People'
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
They may be the most famous 52 words in American history. Written almost as an afterthought, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution has come to represent everything Americans think a government ought to do and ought to be.

Prior to the Constitution - The Articles of Confederation

In 1787, the mood of the country was foul. Six years after the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and four years after the Treaty of Paris, which had given the United States its independence, it was becoming clear that not all was working as the newly independent nation had envisioned. Most of the problem, seemingly, could be traced to the government - not to the people serving in it or representing the 13 states, but instead, the government itself. There seemed to be something wrong with the design of the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitution, and its Preamble, as we know it today was not drafted during the Revolutionary War. Instead, the Founding Fathers drafted the Articles of Confederation in 1776. The articles were meant to establish the country as a confederation of sovereign states. However, the articles-based government had several structural flaws that didn't become fully apparent until the war itself was in full swing. Chief among these issues was the power given to individual states.

Under the articles, the federal government was kept particularly weak. Most notably, the Congress had no powers of taxation; it could only request money from the states. These requests were often denied - a quick read of George Washington's letters to Congress demonstrates how frustrating this was for the Continental Army during wartime. Moreover, the Congress couldn't regulate commerce between the states, which meant that each state controlled its own trade policies and debts. In the Congress itself, each state had one vote, which roughly equalized the power of large and small states, much to the annoyance of larger states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, and any attempt to change or amend the Articles required a unanimous vote of all 13 states, a practical impossibility.

Why was the government designed this way? It's easy to understand in light of what the Revolution was all about - the threat of a powerful, even tyrannical central power, represented in the British crown. Americans were petrified of a strong central government and signed the Articles of Confederation to avoid the perils of such a powerful institution. But, after the war ended, many began to see that a weakened government could present its own problems.

A Call for Change - The New Constitution

In 1786, a Massachusetts army officer-turned-farmer named Daniel Shays led a short rebellion against the state government, over what he saw as unfair tax policies. Though the rebellion was quickly dispersed and there was little violence, the fear that state governments were close to collapse and that the articles government would be unable to help them spurred many American leaders to action. The following spring in Philadelphia, delegates from 12 states - Rhode Island did not attend - gathered together, technically to revise the articles. What they produced was a brand new form of government - new to the nation, and new to the world.

The Preamble was written in the last days of the Convention by the Committee of Style: Alexander Hamilton, William Samuel Johnson, Rufus King, James Madison, and Gouverneur Morris. The wording was not discussed by the body of delegates and seemed to be largely an afterthought. In fact, the original language did not refer to the 'United States,' but instead to the various states, which was much more common in governmental documents and declarations. The change to 'We the People' was a practical one since the Constitution included a ratification process; after nine states accepted the new government, it would go into effect, whether or not the remaining four ratified.

Analysis of the Preamble

The Preamble says:

'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.'

By itself, the Preamble is little more than one sentence that repeats the phrase 'United States,' but it has come to serve several major purposes.

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