The Preamble to the United States Constitution
is a brief introductory statement of the fundamental purposes and guiding principles which the Constitution is meant to serve. It expresses in general terms the intentions of its authors, and is sometimes referred to by courts as evidence of what the Founding Fathers
thought the Constitution meant and what they hoped it would achieve (especially as compared with the Articles of Confederation
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.
Meaning and application
The Preamble does not assign any powers to the federal government
or provide specific limitations on government action. Due to the Preamble's limited nature, it has almost certainly never been relied upon by any court as the decisive factor in deciding a case, except in apparently frivolous circumstances.
Judicial relevance of the Preamble
Due to the relatively vague or general language that the Constitution uses, combined with the particular importance of properly interpreting it, the courts are interested in any clues about the Constitution's meaning that they can find in the Preamble. Courts have developed several techniques for interpreting
the meaning of statutes, and these are also used to interpret the Constitution. As a result, the courts have said that interpretive techniques that focus on the exact text of a document should be used in interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, and so the Preamble provides additional language against which to compare other parts of the Constitution. Balanced against these techniques are those that focus more attention on broader efforts to discern the meaning of the document from more than just the wording; the Preamble is also useful for these efforts to identify the "spirit" of the Constitution.
Additionally, when interpreting a legal document, courts are very often interested in understanding the document as its authors did and their motivations for creating it; as a result, the courts have cited the Preamble for evidence of the history, intent and meaning of the Constitution as it was understood by the Founders. Although revolutionary in some ways, the Constitution maintained many common law concepts (such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and sovereign immunity) and courts feel that the Founders' perceptions of the legal system that the Constitution created (i.e., the interaction between what it changed and what it kept from the British legal system) are uniquely important because of the authority "the People" invested them with to create it. Along with evidence of the understandings of the men who debated and drafted the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention, the courts are also interested in the way that government officials have put into practice the Constitution's provisions, particularly early government officials, although the courts reserve to themselves the final authority to determine the Constitution's meaning. However, this focus on historical understandings of the Constitution is sometimes in tension with the changed circumstances of modern society from the late 18th-century society that drafted the Constitution; courts have said that the Constitution must be interpreted in light of these changed circumstances. All of these considerations of the political theory behind the Constitution have prompted the Supreme Court to articulate a variety of special rules of construction and principles for interpreting it. For example, the Court's notions of the purposes behind the Constitution have led it to express a preference for broad interpretations of individual freedoms.
An example of the way courts utilize the Preamble is Ellis v. City of Grand Rapids
, 257 F. Supp.
564 (W.D. Mich.
1966). Substantively, the case was about eminent domain
. The City of Grand Rapids
wanted to use eminent domain to force landowners to sell property in the city identified as "blighted," and convey the property to owners that would develop it in ostensibly beneficial ways: in this case, to St. Mary's Hospital, a Catholic
organization. This area of substantive constitutional law is governed by the Fifth Amendment
, which is understood to require that property acquired via eminent domain must be put to a "public use." In interpreting whether the proposed project constituted a "public use," the court pointed to the Preamble's reference to "promot[ing] the general Welfare" as evidence that "[t]he health of the people was in the minds of our forefathers. "[T]he concerted effort for renewal and expansion of hospital and medical care centers as a part of our nation's system of hospitals, is as a public service and use within the highest meaning of such terms. Surely this is in accord with an objective of the United States Constitution: ‘* * * promote the general Welfare.’
On the other hand, courts will not interpret the Preamble to give the government powers that are not articulated elsewhere in the Constitution. One example of the limits of the meaning of the Preamble is United States v. Kinnebrew Motor Co., 8 F. Supp. 535 (W.D. Okla. 1934). There, the defendants were a car manufacturer and dealership indicted for a criminal violation of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). The statute had been passed by Congress to cope with the Great Depression, and one of its provisions purported to give to the President authority to fix "the prices at which new cars may be sold. The dealership, located in Oklahoma City, had sold an automobile to a customer (also from Oklahoma City) for less than the price for new cars fixed pursuant to NIRA. Substantively, the case was about whether the transaction in question constituted "interstate commerce" that Congress could regulate pursuant to the Commerce Clause. Although the government argued that the scope of the Commerce Clause included this transaction, it also argued that the Preamble's statement that the Constitution was created to "promote the general Welfare" should be understood to permit Congress to regulate transactions such as the one in the case, particularly in the face of an obvious national emergency like the Great Depression. The court, however, dismissed this argument as erroneous, instead insisting that the only relevant issue was whether the transaction that prompted the indictment actually constituted "interstate commerce" under the Supreme Court's precedents interpreting that clause of the Constitution.
Aspects of national sovereignty
The Preamble's reference to the "United States of America" has required interpretation over the years to determine exactly what the nature is of the governmental entity that the Constitution creates. The Supreme Court has made it clear that the "United States of America" consists of only one nation with respect to foreign affairs and international relations. Although the Constitution expressly gives to the federal government only some of the usual powers of sovereign governments (such as the power to declare war or make treaties), all such powers inherently belong to the federal government as the country's representative in the international community.
Domestically, the federal government's sovereignty means that it may perform acts such as entering into contracts or accepting bonds, which are typical of governmental entities but not expressly provided for in the Constitution or laws. Similarly, the federal government, as an attribute of sovereignty, has the power to enforce those powers that are granted to it (e.g., the power to "establish Post Offices and Post Roads includes the power to punish those who interfere with the postal system so established). The Court has recognized the federal government's supreme power over those limited matters entrusted to it. Furthermore, the federal government exercises this supreme power not as a unitary entity, but instead via the three coordinate branches of the government (legislative, executive, and judicial), each of which has its own prescribed powers and limitations under the Constitution.
"People of the United States"
The phrase "People of the United States" has sometimes been understood to mean "citizens." This approach reasons that, if the political community speaking for itself in the Preamble ("We
the People") includes only citizens, by negative implication it specifically excludes non-citizens in some fashion. It has also been construed to mean something like "all under the sovereign jurisdiction and authority of the United States. The phrase has been construed as affirming that the national government created by the Constitution derives its sovereignty
from the people, as well as confirming that the government under the Constitution was intended to govern and protect "the people" directly, as one society, instead of governing only the states as political units. The Court has also understood this language to mean that the sovereignty of the government under the U.S. Constitution is superior to that of the States. Stated in negative terms, the Preamble has been interpreted as meaning that the Constitution was not the act of sovereign and independent States. In short, although in some ways the meaning and implications of the Preamble may be contested, at the least it can be said that the Preamble demonstrates that the federal government of the United States
was not created as an agreement between or coalition of the States. Instead, it was the product of "the People" with the power to govern the People directly, unlike the government under the Articles of Confederation, which only governed the People indirectly through rules imposed on the States.
Where the Constitution is legally effective
The Preamble has been used to confirm that the Constitution was made for, and is binding only in, the United States of America. For example, in Casement v. Squier
, 46 F. Supp. 296 (W.D. Wash.
, 138 F.2d 909 (9th Cir.
1943), a serviceman in China during World War II was tried for murder in the United States Court for China
. After being sent to prison in the State of Washington, he filed a writ of habeas corpus
with the local federal court, claiming he had been unconstitutionally put on trial without a jury. The court held that, since his trial was conducted by an American court and was, by American standards, basically fair, he was not entitled to the specific constitutional right of trial by jury while overseas.
Since the Preamble declares the Constitution to have been created by the "People of the United States", "there may be places within the jurisdiction of the United States that are no part of the Union. The following examples help demonstrate the meaning of this distinction:
- Ochoa v. Hernandez y Morales, : the Fifth Amendment's requirement that "no person shall . . . be deprived of . . . property, without due process of law" was held, by the Supreme Court, to apply in Puerto Rico, even though it was not a State and thus not "part" of the United States.
- De Lima v. Bidwell, : the Supreme Court ruled that a customs collector could not, under a statute providing for taxes on imported goods, collect taxes on goods coming from Puerto Rico after it had been ceded to the United States from Spain, reasoning that although it was not a State, it was under the jurisdiction of U.S. sovereignty, and thus the goods were not being imported from a foreign country. However, in Downes v. Bidwell, , the Court held that the Congress could constitutionally enact a statute taxing goods sent from Puerto Rico to ports in the United States differently from other commerce, in spite of the constitutional requirement that "all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States, on the theory that although Puerto Rico could not be treated as a foreign country, it did not count as part of the "United States" and thus was not guaranteed "uniform" tax treatment by that clause of the Constitution. This was not the only constitutional clause held not to apply in Puerto Rico: later, a lower court went on to hold that goods brought from Puerto Rico into New York before the enactment of the tax statute held constitutional in Downes, could retroactively have the taxes applied to them notwithstanding the Constitution's ban on ex post facto laws, even if at the time they were brought into the United States no tax could be applied to the goods because Puerto Rico was not a foreign country.
- Geofroy v. Riggs, : the Supreme Court held that a certain treaty between the United States and France which was applicable in "the States of the Union" was also applicable in the District of Columbia, even though it is not part of or a member of the Union (i.e., it is not a State and therefore not one of the "United States").
"To form a more perfect Union"
The phrase "to form a more perfect Union" has been construed as referring to the shift to the Constitution from the Articles of Confederation. In this transition, the "Union" was made "more perfect" by the creation of a federal government with enough power to act directly upon citizens, rather than a government with narrowly limited power that could act on citizens (e.g., by imposing taxes) only indirectly through the states. Although the Preamble speaks of perfecting the "Union," and the country is called the "United States
of America," the Supreme Court has interpreted the institution created as a government over the people, not an agreement between the States. The phrase has also been interpreted to confirm that state nullification
of any federal law, dissolution of the Union, or secession
from it, are not contemplated by the Constitution.