Preamble

Author:Dennis J. Mahoney
Pages:1985-1986
 
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Page 1985

The part of the Constitution that we read first is the part of the original Constitution that was written last. The Preamble, which sets forth the noble purposes for which the Constitution is "ordained and established," was composed by the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION'S Committee of Style. The committee sat between September 8 and September 11, 1787, after the Convention had debated and voted on all of the substantive provisions of the Constitution; its mandate was to arrange and harmonize the wording of the resolutions adopted by the delegates during the preceding four months. The task of actually drafting the document fell to GOUVERNEUR MORRIS of New York, and so the authorship of the Preamble must be ascribed to him.

Morris made two major changes in the Preamble as it was reported by the Committee of Detail and referred to the Committee of Style. The earlier version had begun, "We, the people of the states of ?" and then had listed the thirteen states in order, from north to south; Morris changed this to the now familiar "We, the people of the United States.?" And the earlier version had merely stated that the people ordained and established the Constitution; Morris added the list of purposes for which they did so. Each of these changes has been the occasion of some controversy.

The reference to the "people of the United States" was a source of irritation to the Anti-Federalists. PATRICK HENRY, for example, in the Virginia ratifying convention, denounced the use of the phrase as a harbinger of a national despotism. The Convention, he said, should have written instead, "We, the States.?" In ANTI-FEDERALIST CONSTITUTIONAL THOUGHT, only the states, as the existing political units, to which the people had already delegated all the powers of government, could constitute a federal union and redelegate some of their powers to the national government. Reference to the constituent authority of "the people of the United States" seemed to imply consolidation, not confederation.

It is unlikely that Morris, the Committee of Style, or the Convention had any such implication in mind. The Convention had approved a preamble that referred to the people of all thirteen states. The committee had to "harmonize" that with the provision that the Constitution would become effective when it was ratified by any nine states. There would likely be a time, therefore, when there would be nine states in the Union and four outside of it; but...

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