“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.
“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.
- The American Memory Timeline provides background and additional documents;
- The lesson plan The Constitution: Drafting a More Perfect Union focuses on the drafting of the United States Constitution during the Federal Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia.
Let us know in a comment what surprised your students in these two drafts.
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.
The preamble was also stating the goals, correct?
I was recently told by a friend that the preamble originally used the verbiage, “promote the ownership of property” instead of “promote the general welfare”.
This didn’t ring right with me but thought I’d check… any insights?
A very interesting question. I would contact our Digital Reference Section using their Ask a Librarian page. I’m sure they will help you determine the answer or direct you to someone who can assist.
The Founding Fathers’ first mistake: aiming for perfection.
How did anybody get the idea that the Founding Fathers’ were aiming for perfection? Article V and the discussion the delegates engaged in its creation ought to put that idea to rest. They fully expected their work to be corrected by amendment. Only 27 amendments after 237 years and the oldest constitution among the nations is indicative, however, that they came pretty damn close to perfection.
I will have to think about the comments mentioned
due to the fact there was a variety of explanations to be understood and implemented by these forefathers, if we are to think of individual States or the United States this must be defined with purpose for the Declaration was written in the passed and now we are in the present, adding on with more aligned states or countries who are being represented by our power as a people or as a Union. Which way is the Constitution heading? Is it for the people or the interest of the United States?
Have to think about these questions.
Aren’t the people and the United States the same…
what are some influences for the preamble
I find it revealing that the phrase “our posterity” is in both drafts. The Founders were intentionally making a structure for their families (the future). They agreed to trade offs and compromises that they expected would be enforced in the future (subject to a formal right of amendment) to benefit their families. As a lawyer, I believe that this is an argument against both (a) too much judicial activism and (b) decisions that weaken the separation of powers (the formal structure of government). Most of all, it should be a lesson about thinking of the future. As a society, we should stress making difficult choices and compromises that are designed to make the future better.