The wording of the Preamble simply stated what the delegates had been expressing all summer. With the opening and closing words of the Preamble, the Framers announced that they were proposing a new kind of compact, different from the one that they were trying to replace: “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Those opening words were the only part of the Preamble that would become controversial during the ratifying debates. In the Virginia Ratifying Convention, Patrick Henry asked of the Framers, “What right had they to say, We, the people? … Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states?” The answer to that question, of course, was found within the body of the Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution had no authority to speak for the people, but the people had the authority to speak for themselves. And by submitting the proposed Constitution to the people, through the medium of ratification conventions which were popularly elected, the people were being given a genuine alternative to “ordain and establish this Constitution” or to reject it. If they rejected it, then the Constitution would be no more than a historical artifact, but if they accepted it, then the language of “We the People” would be fully justified.
The first goal listed in the Constitution’s Preamble was meant to be an improvement on one that had been expressed in the Articles of Confederation. The older compact had promised in its Preamble to establish a “perpetual Union between the States,” and that promise had lasted only a few years. The new Preamble had promised instead “to form a more perfect Union.” This language is sometimes mocked as ungrammatical, because it cannot be said of two perfect things that one is more perfect than the other. But of course that is not the sense in which the words were constructed. None of the Framers believed that either compact was perfect, but they believed that the union that the Constitution created was closer to perfection than the one that had existed under the Articles. This union would be “more perfect” than the old one because it would be founded on the consent of the people and it would operate directly on the people (the Articles of Confederation had been created by and for the states). The body of the Constitution fulfilled this promise by its popular ratification, its popular representation in Congress, and by establishing an executive branch that was empowered to execute the federal laws directly, rather than going through the states as intermediaries.
The most innovative clause in the new Preamble was its promise to “establish Justice.” Nothing remotely like it appears in the Articles of Confederation, and for good reason. There were particular provisions added to the Constitution that were designed to establish justice in ways that the Articles never could. The establishment of a judicial branch comes immediately to mind, along with some of its attendant features, like a trial by jury. There are also some explicit prohibitions in the Constitution that are meant to establish justice by guarding against injustice. Congress is forbidden from suspending the writ of habeas corpus, except under dire circumstances, or from passing any ex post facto laws. And the states are forbidden from printing paper money or impairing the obligation of contracts. But even more important than these individual constitutional prohibitions, the structure of the government was itself meant to achieve a more perfect justice than the Articles had done. The new legislature was constructed using a more just measure of apportionment; therefore, many of the delegates expected that the laws proceeding from this new body would be a more accurate and just representation of the people who comprised the union.
The new Constitution also promised to “insure domestic Tranquility.” These words cannot be found in the Preamble of the Articles of Confederation, but there were some hints that the old compact had aimed at the same goal. The Articles had promised to be “a firm league of friendship,” which seems to suggest, if not presuppose, domestic tranquility. And there were some provisions for establishing comity between the states that are found in both compacts (such as the “privileges and immunities” and “full faith and credit” clauses). But after the experience of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, the Framers had come to believe that the old compact was insufficient in this regard. The new Constitution therefore aimed for something more than friendship between sovereign states; it also sought to ensure domestic tranquility within the states. To that end, Article I gave to Congress the power of “calling forth the Militia to … suppress Insurrections.” And Article IV likewise made this promise: The United States would protect the states “against domestic Violence” whenever the states asked for help. The new promise of “domestic Tranquility” therefore related to maintaining the peace within the states as well as between them.
The Preamble of the Constitution again borrowed from the Articles of Confederation in its promise to “provide for the common defence, [and] promote the general Welfare.” The Preamble to the Articles had asserted that the states were confederating “for their common defence … and their mutual and general welfare.” Their stated aims, in this regard, were therefore the same, but the body of the Constitution had added features that would promote these ends better than the old Articles. The new institution of a vigorous executive, one who could act as commander in chief when necessary, would provide for the common defense far more efficiently than the old plan of entrusting intricate military decisions to a numerous body such as Congress. In addition, the new Congress, unlike the old one, was empowered to establish a standing army. And the general welfare would be better promoted in two ways. First, the improved system of representation would ensure that the welfare they sought would be more “general” and less regional. Second, some of the added powers of Congress, particularly as they related to trade, would allow the legislative body to make good on its promise of looking out for the people’s welfare.
Finally, the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed its intention to promote “the security of [the states’] liberties,” but the Preamble to the Constitution made a loftier claim. The Constitution was meant to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The Articles had only looked to the liberties of the states; the Constitution sought to secure liberty for the people of the United States, both at the present time and far into the future. And whereas the Articles had been content with guarding liberty alone, the Constitution sought to safeguard all the blessings that come with liberty. The Constitution promoted liberty and its blessings, in part, because of the new checks that were being instituted—both between the branches of the federal government and between the layers of government at the state and federal level. Liberty was further promoted in the Constitution’s Article IV guarantee to the states of “a republican form of government.” Here, the Constitution was explicitly looking to the future. The states all had republican governments at the time the Constitution was being written and ratified, and the people of the states could enjoy the blessings of that liberty. But this guarantee in the Constitution ensured that the nation’s posterity could never be denied that blessing. The Constitution’s Preamble therefore made grander promises than the ones found in the Articles of Confederation, but the more important difference was that the new Constitution had been designed to keep its promises.