The making of the Constitution was an exercise in reconciling a diversity of competing principles and hammering out innumerable small details. Some of these details—such as the Preamble and the commerce clause—were added to the Constitution with very little debate, even though they would later become significant and sometimes controversial sections of the Constitution. Several of the details—such as the privileges and immunities clause and the guarantees of free speech and debate for Congressmen—aroused very little debate in the Convention because these clauses were merely copied from similar ones found in the Articles of Confederation. And although many of the delegates had clashed over some of the exceptions and qualifications that were appended to the broad powers to levy taxes and regulate trade, , all of the delegates had come to the Convention with the expectation that Congress would require some powers of this sort in order to remedy the acknowledged defects of the Articles of Confederation. And finally, choosing modes for ratifying the new Constitution and amending it after it was ratified were decisions that at times caused tempers to flare, because these choices involved an explicit and decisive break with the pact that had bound them under the Articles.
If a public opinion poll were taken which asked average Americans to name a favorite part of the 1787 Constitution (taking the Bill of Rights out of the running), most people would probably choose the Preamble. Its simple and direct phrases do not match the soaring rhetoric found in the Declaration of Independence (“When in the course of human events …”) nor do they make the same lofty and universal claims (“all men are created equal”). Nonetheless, it is the closest thing in our Constitution to a statement of principle. If the rest of the Constitution is our government’s instruction manual, then the Preamble is the mission statement for the country. Yet little can be known about how it was drafted or why it was adopted. The paragraph that we recognize as the Preamble was written in the Committee of Style very late in the Convention, and it was adopted by the Convention without any debate and even, it would appear, without a formal vote. It is impossible to glean from the process of framing the Preamble, then, what the Framers might have intended by this short paragraph.
In a broader sense, the entire proceedings of the summer were a debate over the Preamble. It was within these debates that the Framers established and clarified their aims for the new Constitution, and the Preamble merely expressed, in the final hours of their labors, those aims which they had already presupposed throughout all of their other decisions. Not all of these aims had arisen de novo from the Convention debates, however. Some of them had already been expressed in the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, the delegates’ first serious discussion in the Convention was an exploration of how to achieve those goals that the Articles had declared for itself but which it had been unable to fulfill.
In a speech that was designed to introduce the Virginia Plan to the rest of the delegates on May 29, Edmund Randolph explained that before suggesting revisions to the existing Articles, their first task was to inquire “into the properties which such a government ought to possess.” The first three of the five goals he listed were similar to goals stated in the Articles: “The character of such a government ought to secure, first, against foreign invasion; secondly, against dissensions between members of the Union, or seditions in particular states; thirdly, to procure to the several states various blessings, of which an isolated situation was incapable.” The fourth and fifth goals were new: that the new government should “be paramount to the state constitutions” and be able to defend itself from state encroachment. These goals were summed up in the first resolution of the Virginia Plan: “Resolved, that the Articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected and enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely, ‘common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare.’” Loosely quoting from Article III of the Articles of Confederation, the first resolution of the Virginia Plan therefore stated their aim: the Convention must devise a government that would actually accomplish what the Articles had set out to do.
On the following day, Randolph and Morris moved to postpone the first resolution to take up three replacements. The first of these three propositions was similar to the first resolution: “That a union of the states merely federal will not accomplish the objects proposed by the Articles of Confederation—namely, common defence, security of liberty, and general welfare”. But the delegates’ attention was fixated on the other two propositions, which related to the nature of the government they were about to create—whether it should be national or federal and which government should be supreme—and therefore the more abstract question of identifying the aims of this government was dropped and not addressed again directly.