Gouverneur Morris on the Preamble to the Constitution

In some prior posts, I have been discussing both the Preamble to the Constitution and the effect on the Constitution of Gouverneur Morris revising it for the Committee on Style. In this post, I explore the intersection of these issues: How did Gouverneur Morris’s revision of the Preamble change the Constitution?

The Convention had referred to the Committee of Style the following version of the Preamble:

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.

The Committee of Style, with Gouverneur Morris as the lead author, produced a Preamble very similar to the one we know:

We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, to 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 the Constitution for the United States of America.

One very significant change is that Morris changed the language “We the People of the States” to “We the People of the United States.” One might conclude that the change Morris made rendered the Constitution a much more nationalist document. Perhaps, but I am not so sure.

Here, let me focus on one aspect of the Preamble—the question of what entity is enacting the Constitution. Is it a single people who make up the nation? Or is it the multiple peoples of the different states? The conventional way of reading the change made by Morris is that it changed the enacting entity from the multiple peoples to a single people.

But it is not clear that is true. “We the people of the states” could be referring to either of these possibilities. Obviously, it could mean the different peoples of the states, as the conventional reading has it. But it could also mean a single people for the nation. The phrase might be referring to a single people living in the different states. That is, it might have been saying “we the people who live in these different states.”

Conversely, “We the people of the United States” could be referring to either the single people or the multiple peoples. Obviously, it could mean the single people, as it does in the conventional reading of the term. But it could also be referring to the multiple peoples of the different states. The United States didn’t always mean a single nation, like France or Russia. At the time of the Constitution, it often was understood as a group of states that were united together—the United States were the states that were united, in a similar way to how the United Nations refers to separate nations that are united for certain purposes.

People often forget that the United States was originally understood as a plural noun. The Constitution itself treats it that way, stating in the Treason Clause “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies.”

In the end, I am not sure that the change made by Morris has much effect on this key question. To me, the most important aspect of the Preamble is that it focuses on popular sovereignty. It is the people, rather than the government of the states or the nation, that are the enactors. But the people were enactors under the previous version as well as Morris’s version.

Reader Discussion

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on March 13, 2019 at 10:46:42 am

"States" were plural. But "people" was singular. One people, many states.

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on March 13, 2019 at 11:50:13 am

I think this essay is beside the point. After Justice Marshall employed "We the People" from the Preamble to assert that "THE" people were sovereign and NOT the States, this issue became moot - only to eventually arise again in the later antebellum period.

While it is true that many viewed COTUS as a "compact" between the States, after Marshall, at least juridicially, the compact thesis became Dead Letter Law.

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on March 13, 2019 at 11:54:38 am

There’s a typo in the quotation showing the final version of the Preamble. It should end with: “this Constitution for the United States of America.”; not “the Constitution . . . .”

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Independence Intelligencer
on March 15, 2019 at 17:53:06 pm

I agree with the author's comments, especially regarding the word "nationalist" to describe the effect of Morris' addition of "United" in the Preamble. A national government is not the same as a nationalism. We must also be very careful not to confuse nationalism with patriotism.

Patriotism is love of country, period. It means you are proud of your country, and loyal. It is a healthy sentiment and should be encouraged. Patriotism says uphold our noble ideals and traditions, correct our errors and leave our country in better shape than it was when we arrived on the scene.

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Karen Renfro
on April 29, 2019 at 23:35:24 pm

The convention’s version of the preamble is objectionable. First, Rhode Island was a dissident or rebel and remained so even after the USA began operating with only eleven states. The version claims self-government rather that self-discipline. The constitution to be signed only required nine state's ratifications, so writing the totality of either states or inhabitants into the preamble made no sense.

The Committee of Style wrote a proposition about which each citizen could be collaborative, or passive, or dissident, or rebellious, or whatever the individual preferred. However, those who would collaborate intended five provisions---union, justice, tranquility, defence, and welfare---to secure blessings to living and future citizens. The blessing to be secured is human liberty, and “blessing” means encouragement by the providers---those who adopted the U.S. preamble's proposition.

Rappaport seems well grounded to think the preamble may not be nationalist. Not only is the people not a totality, the people is divided on trust-in and commitment-to the U.S. preamble’s proposition. There will always be people who think deceit and crime pay, but some of them will yield to the law.

What’s needed to reform the U.S. from its present abyss is for 2/3 of the people in every state, every religion, every sport, every professional association, every elected office, every appointed office, indeed in every society, to become fellow citizens under the U.S. preamble’s proposition.

The U.S. preamble’s proposition is dysfunctional without individuals who want responsible human liberty enough to enact it and collaborate for statutory justice---the perfection of statutory law. It matters not whether the people of the nation or the people of a state impose on the individual: Either way, responsible human liberty is impossible.

“. . . the people were enactors under the previous version as well as Morris’s version.” Maybe so, but when Morris added five collaborative provisions in order to encourage liberty to living citizens and future citizens, the U.S. preamble, intentionally or not, became an offer for responsible human liberty. I speculate that the committee in only four days’ time, perhaps starting with the Massachusetts preamble, wrote a precious few words that reflected the product of the convention’s debates.

The people of the past 231 years have left to our generation the privilege of establishing the civic, civil, and legal power of the U.S. preamble. We have an achievable better future to take responsibility for. Let’s get started.

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Phillip Beaver
on August 19, 2020 at 21:17:55 pm

Huge difference qualitatively between the original and G Morris' because the original was simply not inspirational and worth being memorized in schools as has GM's. Moreover his eloquence and beautiful, cadenced phrasing is used to enumerate many forms the ways we the people are the authority, replacing a tired list of states' names.

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Jim Surkamp

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