The Preamble to the Constitution: Making Inferences About Intent Using Two Drafts from the Library of Congress

Report of the Committee of Style in the Federal Convention, September 1787, page one, [emendations in the hand of George Washington at the Convention]

“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 to the U.S. Constitution is well known to many Americans. (Common Core teachers might also recognize it as one of the foundational documents named in the CCSS.)

But the meaning of those 52 words, and the original intent of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, are still widely studied and debated.

One way to get a better understanding of a writer’s intent in an informational text is to study choices made during revisions — which words are deleted and what is selected to replace them. The Constitution went through a number of drafts and reviews by committee. Compare the Preamble text that was eventually ratified and adopted to this early draft produced by the Committee of Detail.

Report of the Committee of Detail in the Federal Convention, August 1787, page one, [emendations in the hand of William Samuel Johnson at the Convention]

“We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.”

In comparing the two drafts, students might:

  • Focus on the impact of two specific phrases: “We the People of the United States” and “We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia.” They might imagine themselves on the committees reviewing the document; what arguments would they offer for retaining the list of individual states? For replacing the list of states with “the United States”? Looking at that choice, what can a 21st century reader infer about the intentions of the Constitutional Convention?
  •  Consider and compare what each draft explicitly names as the purpose for Constitution. Why might the later draft list “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” when the early draft says merely “do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.

Additional Resources:

Let us know in a comment what surprised  your students in these two drafts.

2 Comments

  1. cheryl
    January 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    Well established government is not stringent but allows a free market place of ideas to best serve society and must remember that public is best served not im punishing unpopular views to the edicat of another..perhaps to guard against their future security.

  2. Katie
    January 11, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    The preamble was also stating the goals, correct?

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