Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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The Preamble

The Preamble in the Committee of Detail and the Committee of Style

It was left to the Committee of Detail, which met in late July and early August, to make a first attempt at drafting a preamble. The committee mainly followed the example of the Articles of Confederation, but they altered some words in small but significant ways.  The Articles had spoken on behalf of the members of Congress and stated their intention to “agree to certain articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the States of …” before enumerating all thirteen states by name.  The committee’s preamble, on the other hand, had shifted the voice:  “We, the people of the states of … [naming all thirteen states], do ordain, declare, and establish, the following Constitution for the government of our selves and our posterity.”  Both documents listed all of the states individually, but only the emerging constitution spoke for the people of those states, proclaiming that they would be the ones doing the ordaining and establishing of this Constitution.  They had also changed “confederacy” to “government,” making no secret of their decision to shift from a simple confederacy to a government.  The Convention unanimously agreed to this preamble on August 7 without any debate.

The Committee of Style, appointed in September, was the second group to take up the drafting of the Preamble. Morris takes credit for drafting most of the final version of the Constitution, and its Preamble may have come from his pen.  The Preamble that the committee drafted was adopted almost without change into the Constitution; the only difference between the two is that the Framers chose to strike the word “to” from the clause “establish justice.”  Other than that vote, which is recorded in the Journal (but not in Madison’s notes) on September 13, the records disclose no instance of the delegates deliberating about the Preamble during the whole of the Convention.

Edmund Randolph on Designing the Preamble

We have a little insight that extends beyond the committee drafts of a Preamble. A document survives in Edmund Randolph’s handwriting describing some thoughts on constitutional preambles:

A preamble seems proper.  Not for the purpose of designating the ends of government and human polities—This display of theory, howsoever proper in the first formation of state governments, is unfit here; since we are not working on the natural rights of men not yet gathered into society, but upon those rights, modified by society, and interwoven with what we call the rights of states—Nor yet is it proper for the purpose of mutually pledging the faith of the parties for the observance of the articles—This may be done more solemnly at the close of the draught, as in the confederation—But the object of our preamble ought to be briefly to declare, that the present foederal government is insufficient to the general happiness; that the conviction of this fact gave birth to this convention; and that the only effectual mode which they can devise, for curing this insufficiency, is the establishment of a supreme legislative executive and judiciary—Let it be next declared, that the following are the constitution and fundamentals of government for the United States–

The preamble that the committee drafted was even more minimalist than the aims stated in this proposal.  But these thoughts seem to reflect the Convention’s final decision to adopt a preamble that deliberately departed from those declarations of abstract principles that were often found in some of the state constitutions.