Preamble: United States Constitution

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The Preamble was placed in the Constitution more or less as an afterthought. It was not proposed or discussed on the floor of the Constitutional Convention. Rather, Gouverneur Morris, a delegate from Pennsylvania who as a member of the Committee of Style actually drafted the near-final text of the Constitution, composed it at the last moment. It was Morris who gave the considered purposes of the Constitution coherent shape, and the Preamble was the capstone of his expository gift. The Preamble did not, in itself, have any substantive legal meaning. The understanding at the time was that preambles are merely declaratory and are not to be read as granting or limiting power—a view sustained by the Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905).

Nevertheless, the Preamble has considerable potency by virtue of its specification of the purposes for which the Constitution exists. It distills the underlying values that moved the Framers during their long debates in Philadelphia. As Justice Joseph Story put it in his celebrated Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, "its true office is to expound the nature and extent and application of the powers actually conferred by the Constitution." Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist No. 84, went so far as to assert that the words "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" were "a better recognition of popular rights, than volumes of those aphorisms, which make the principal figure in several of our state bills of rights."

An appreciation of the Preamble begins with a comparison of it to its counterpart in the compact the Constitution replaced, the Articles of Confederation. There, the states joined in "a firm league of friendship, for their common defence, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare" and bound themselves to assist one another "against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade,...
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