The first page of the United States Constitution, opening with the Preamble
Credit: Credit: National Archives
“[T]he preamble of a statute is a key to open the mind of the makers, as to the mischiefs, which are to be remedied, and the objects, which are to be accomplished by the provisions of the statute.” — Justice Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution
The Preamble is the introduction to the United States Constitution and like all good introductions it serves several purposes. First of all, it states the source from which the Constitution gets its authority: the sovereign people of the United States. Second, it sets forth the great objects or ends that the Constitution and the government that it establishes are meant to serve.
Gouverneur Morris, the man the Constitutional Convention entrusted with drafting the final version of the document, put into memorable language the principles of government that had been agreed upon by the framers at the Convention.
As Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story points out in the passage quoted above, the Preamble captures some of the hopes and fears of the framers for the American republic. By reading their words closely and comparing them with those of the Articles of Confederation, students can in turn access “the mind of the makers” as to “mischiefs” to be “remedied” and “objects” to be accomplished.
In this lesson, students will practice close reading and analysis of the words of the Preamble and related historic documents that illuminate the meaning of the terms and how they reflect the ideas of the framers of the Constitution about the foundation and historical aims of government.
How does the language of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution reflect historical circumstances and ideas about government?
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
The Articles of Confederation was established in 1781 as the nation’s “first constitution.” Each state governed itself through elected representatives, and the state representatives in turn elected a central government. But the national government was so feeble and its powers so limited that this system proved unworkable. Congress could not impose taxes to cover national expenses, which meant the Confederation was ineffectual. And because all 13 colonies had to ratify amendments, one state’s refusal prevented any reform. By 1786 many far-sighted American leaders saw the need for a more powerful central authority; a convention was called to meet in Philadelphia in May 1789.
The Constitutional Convention met for four months. Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government and then, how to balance and check that power to prevent government abuse.
As debate at the Philadelphia Convention drew to a close, Gouverneur Morris was assigned to the Committee of Style and given the task of wording the Constitution by the committee’s members. Through thoughtful word choice, Morris attempted to put the fundamental principles agreed on by the framers into memorable language.
By looking carefully at the words of the Preamble, comparing it with the similar passages in the opening of the Articles of Confederation, and relating them to historical circumstances as well as widely shared political principles such as those found in the Declaration of Independence, students can see how the Preamble reflects the hope and fears of the Framers.
This lesson is one of a series of complementary EDSITEment lesson plans for intermediate-level students about the foundations of our government. Consider adapting them for your class in the following order:
Additional Resource: Teachers Guide to the Preamble (Note: This guide is designed specifically for Activity 2, but it will prove useful for teachers unfamiliar with the historical and philosophical context of the Constitution.)
The following resources are included with this lesson plan to be used in conjunction with the student activities and for teacher preparation.
Review the Graphic Organizer for Activity 2, which contains the Preamble to the Constitution along with the opening passages of the Articles of Confederation and the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (both from OurDocuments.gov), and make copies for the class.
To help students understand the enormous task facing the Americans, pose a hypothetical situation to the class:
Imagine that on a field trip to a wilderness area or sailing trip to a small, remote island, you all became stranded without any communication with parents, the school, or other adults and had little hope of being rescued in the foreseeable future. The area where you’re marooned can provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, and water, but you will have to work together to survive.
Encourage students to think about the next steps they need to take with a general discussion about such matters as:
Distribute the Student Worksheet handout, which contains the seven questions below. [Note: These questions are related to the seven phrases from the Preamble but this relationship in not given on the handout.]
Divide students into small groups and have each group brainstorm a list of things they would have to consider in developing its own government. [Note: You can have all groups answer all seven questions or assign one question for each group.] Ask students to be detailed in their answers and be able to support their recommendations.
While students are working in their groups, write or project the following seven headers on the front board in this order:
After the groups have finished discussing their questions, have them meet as a class. First ask them to identify which question (by number) from their handout goes with which section of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution you’ve listed on the front board. Next, have students share their recommendations to the questions and allow other groups to comment, add, or disagree with the recommendations made.
Encourage class discussion of the following questions:
As in the hypothetical situation described above, what decisions would the colonists have to make about forming a new government out of 13 colonies which, until 1776, had basically been running themselves independently?
Review the Teachers Guide to the Preamble, which parses each of the phrases of the Preamble and contrasts them with the equivalent passages in the Articles and the Declaration. Teachers can use this guide as a source for a short lecture before the activity and a kind of answer sheet for the activity.
In this activity, students investigate the Preamble to the Constitution by comparing and contrasting it with the opening language of the Articles of Confederation. They will:
Linda Monk in her book The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (accessible on the National Constitution Center website) writes:
The first constitution of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, was a failure—or so many advocates of a stronger central government believed. Under the Articles, the states retained virtually all powers, and the national government was considered merely a “firm league of friendship” among them.
She goes on to say: “During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison said that the difference between a government established by state legislatures and one founded on the people directly was ‘the true difference between a league or treaty, and a Constitution.’”
The aim of this activity is to show students, through a close reading of the Preamble, how its style and content reflect some of the aspirations of the framers for the future of republican government in America. The stately language of the Preamble is appropriate to this aspirational aspect.
[Note: teachers should define “diction,” “connotation,” and “denotation” to the students before beginning to ask students to differentiate between language in the two documents.]
Distribute copies of the Graphic Organizer and questions to all students and have them complete it in their small groups (or individually as a homework assignment).
Have one or two students or groups of students summarize their conclusions concerning the critical differences between the Articles and the Preamble, citing the sources of these documents as referents.
Have students answer the following in a brief, well-constructed essay:
Using ideas from this lesson and any additional information you possess, how do the word choices and the structure of the Preamble show that the Constitution is different from the Articles of Confederation.
Note: For an excellent example of what can be inferred from the language and structure of the Preamble, teachers should review and then model this passage by Law Professor Garret Epps, “The Poetry of the Preamble” from the Oxford University Press blog (2013):
“Form, establish, insure, provide, promote, secure”: these are strong verbs that signify governmental power, not restraint. “We the people” are to be bound—into a stronger union. We will be protected against internal disorder—that is, against ourselves—and against foreign enemies. The “defence” to be provided is “common,” general, spread across the country. The Constitution will establish justice; it will promote the “general” welfare; it will secure our liberties. The new government, it would appear, is not the enemy of liberty but its chief agent and protector.
Students could be asked whether they agree or disagree with the above interpretation. They should be expected to have evidence based arguments for their position.
The phrase and aspirations of the Preamble, along with the Declaration, have inspired many large social movements throughout our nation’s history. Two 19th-century developments in particular come to mind: the women’s movement and the anti-slavery movement. Students may find others.
Have students write a short essay about how the words of the Preamble have been appropriated by one of these groups.
Be sure that the essay has a strong thesis (a non-obvious, debatable proposition about the Preamble) that students support with evidence from the texts used in this lesson.
Example1. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,”1852
Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.”
Example 2. Susan B. Anthony “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote” 1873.
It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government— the ballot.
2 class periods