The persistent power of the Preamble

The Preamble to the Constitution is more than fancy opening language. Its 52 words hold the Framers’ hopes for a new nation that remain relevant today.

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Let’s just say Gouverneur Morris was good with words. The Founding Father from Pennsylvania is widely credited with writing the Preamble, as well as giving the entire Constitution its distinct style. Still, the “Penman of the Constitution” suspected history would not be kind. Years after Philadelphia, he wrote: “It is not easy to be wise for all times, not even for the present much less for the future; and those who judge the past must recollect that, when it was the present, the present was future.”

Gouverneur Morris

Today, we view the Constitution with reverence, a sacred text in our national civic religion. It’s a living, evolving document, with 27 amendments and many more interpretations. As the opening note of the Framers’ masterpiece, the Preamble serves notice that what you are about to read is something original.

Developing late in the 1787 Constitutional Convention – 3 1/2 months into the four-month process – the Preamble originally was a dry, enumerated list of the 13 states that approved of the Constitution that followed. Enter Morris and the “Committee on Stile and Arrangement.” For six days in September, Morris and the committee reworked the document into a more readable, structured shape. Their finished draft looked much like the Constitution we know today.

In that final draft, the first 52 words read:

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.”

With that, the preamble became The Preamble. It was more than some fancy opening language. It held the Framers’ hopes for the new nation. Today, it continues to spell out our core values. And those 52 words are still resonant in our shared civic life.

Let’s take a look at them.

We the People of the United States

This is not a pronouncement handed down from a king. It’s written by American elites, yes, but for common people. It also speaks of an American people – either in the federal spirit of the day or by necessity. Framers weren’t yet certain whether all states would vote for ratification.

In Order to form a more perfect Union

This is not another Articles of Confederation, that tepid system of states. In addition to forming a strong central government, this Constitution is aspirational. It gives a nod and a charge to future Americans and the ongoing work to better our democracy by improving, refining, and reforming our imperfect system.

Establish Justice

We are a nation of laws. Status, privilege, or wealth doesn’t mean preferential treatment under the law. The Framers saw the United States as a level playing field. Today, we claim one of the world’s fairest justice systems, but discrimination and bias still exist. Our struggle for the truly just system imagined by the Framers arguably remains the most relevant link to the spirit of the Revolution.

Insure domestic Tranquility

This was a “Never Again” following Shays’ Rebellion, when war veterans revolted in Massachusetts over economic and civil rights injustices. It also displays the confidence the Founders placed in democracy: In a nation where nonviolent methods exist to change the country’s direction, armed rebellion should be unnecessary. Instead of bullets, we use ballots.

Provide for the common defence

This phrase focuses on external dangers. Interestingly, the Framers did not intend the phrase to mean the establishment of standing armies. In today’s fast-moving world, “defence” comes via many methods, from military action to cybersecurity to intelligence-gathering. Another interpretation is of Americans watching out for one another for our collective well-being. We’ve got one anothers’ backs.

Promote the general Welfare

In making justice, tranquility, and defense essential to the nation’s overall health, Morris summarized the Framers’ goal of delivering the benefits of the new government to Americans.

And secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

The Framers dreamed of a democratic republic echoing Jefferson’s declaration of self-evident, inalienable rights for everyone. The United States would be guided by citizens rather than the whims and moods of a monarch. Ever since, each generation of Americans has taken up the charge to guard this national principle. The Framers never took for granted the blessings of liberty, and we owe it to one another to never take it for granted, either. That’s why we vote, educate ourselves, engage with our institutions, and participate in democracy in many other ways.

Yes, Gouverneur Morris had a way with words. He used them to convey that good government, justice, liberty, equality, and democracy were paths to American greatness. And, far from history judging him harshly, his Preamble has guided us for two centuries in our relentless pursuit of a more perfect union. In other words, it has been wise for all time.

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