The Constitution's Original Preamble

This is a forgotten aspect of American history. It is worth mentioning.

The Preamble is the most famous section of the Constitution.

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 phrase, “We the People of the United States,” has been quoted ever since its adoption in 1788. But it was not in the original Preamble.

On August 7, the Committee of Detail submitted a tentative version of the Constitution. Here was the Preamble.

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.

There was a problem. This was not immediately recognized. The Preamble named all 13 states. But some of the states might not ratify it. Rhode Island was not expected to, and only barely did by a vote of 34 to 32: the last state to ratify.

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The first Preamble, which affirmed the sovereignty of the sovereign people of specific states, might not apply. It would take only nine states to ratify in order to create a new government, in opposition to the Articles of Confederation, which required unanimity of all 13 legislatures.

On September 8, the Constitution was turned over to the Committee on Style and Arrangement. The Committee consisted of five men: Alexander Hamilton, William Johnson, Rufus King, James Madison, and Gouverneur Morris. As with the committee of five that was assigned the task of writing the Declaration of Independence, it assigned most of the work to one man: Morris. James Madison later wrote: “The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris.” Morris took 23 articles and converted them into seven. He also completely rewrote the Preamble. It took him three days. The Committee presented its work on September 12.

The Preamble moved the locus of sovereignty from the states to the nation as a whole. This became the declaration of dependence: dependence on a geographically rootless nation. This is what outraged Patrick Henry at the Virginia ratifying convention.

And here I would make this enquiry of those worthy characters who composed a part of the late Federal Convention. I am sure they were fully impressed with the necessity of forming a great consolidated Government, instead of a confederation. That this is a consolidated Government is demonstrably clear, and the danger of such a Government, is, to my mind, very striking. I have the highest veneration of those Gentlemen,–but, Sir, give me leave to demand, what right had they to say, We, the People. My political curiosity, exclusive of my anxious solicitude for the public welfare, leads me to ask who authorised them to speak the language of, We, the People, instead of We, the States? States are the characteristics, and the soul of a confederation. If the States be not the agents of this compact, it must be one great consolidated National Government of the people of all the States.

He lost the vote. The Constitution was ratified by all 13 states. So, the original Preamble could have been kept in. That would have changed the rhetoric of nationalism ever since.

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