Preamble refers to an introductory statement, which in turn describes, or states the reason for, the remaining portion of the document or writing. In the United States, the term preamble is most commonly associated with the introductory section of the U.S. Constitution. Preambles are, however, used at the beginning of other documents, such as charters, constitutions, and legal documents. To explore this concept, consider the following preamble definition.
Definition of Preamble
- A preliminary statement, often used to explain the purpose of a formal document
- An introductory statement or phrase
1350-1400 Middle English < Latin praeambulum (“that which walks ahead”)
What is a Preamble
A preamble is an introduction to a bill, statue, constitution, or other legal document. The preamble describes the purpose or objective of the text that follows. Before the term preamble came about, the Greeks used the word prologue to refer to such introductory statements. In fact, the term prologue is still used in reference to introductory sections of books and plays, with the term preamble most commonly associated with legal documents and charters.
Example of a Preamble in the United Nations Charter
When the United Nations was formed in 1945, a 19-chapter charter was created to govern the activities of the alliance. This document contains an excellent example of a preamble, as it clearly outlines the group’s goals, as well as their methods to meet those ends. The Preamble to the United Nations Charter states:
“WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
- to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
- to regain faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
- to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
- to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
- to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
- to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
- to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
- to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”
Preamble to the Constitution
The United States Constitution is considered by many people to be one of the most important accomplishments, as colonists came together to map out how the brand new government should govern for the people. This lengthy document begins with a description of the goals of the colonists, and purpose of the document.
The preamble to the Constitution was not drafted until the final days of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Preamble to the Constitution is only an introduction, and does not grant any powers to the federal government, nor does it limit governmental action.
The Preamble to the United States Constitution
The Preamble to the United States Constitution is so revered, that middle school students have been required to study and memorize its text for generations.
“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.”
Each line of the Preamble has meaning, though some have interpreted these differently. Commonly, these important phrases are believed to impart these ideas:
We the People
It is believed that the words “We the People” are carry great weight, as this phrase establishes the fact that the new government would derive its powers directly from the people of the new nation. The phrase “We the People” sets the U.S. Constitution apart from other important documents, including the previously drafted Articles of Confederation, which referred to the “states,” rather than the individual citizens.
In Order to Form a More Perfect Union
Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the leaders of the new nation endeavored to improve upon the way the government would operation, and from where it would derive its authority. The first attempt at defining this government is found in the Articles of Confederation, which went into effect on March 1, 1781.
The Articles turned to the nine separate states of the time, but the framers of the Constitution desired to more fully unify the colonies and states. The document’s greater purpose is then stated in the phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union.”
The Declaration of Independence made the grand statement that “all men are created equal,” and the Preamble’s phrase “establish justice” signifies a beginning to fairness for all. The framers of the Constitution desired that the wealthy and entitled would receive the same judgments and punishments when they violate the law as everyone else.
The framers wanted to put the people’s concerns about injustice and unfairness at ease. They wanted the people to look forward to a just nation where courts and the government were fair to all of its citizens.
Insure Domestic Tranquility
The goal of insuring domestic tranquility answered a long period of social and political unrest in the colonies. The leaders of the time desired to address the concerns of all people, in a hope to quell the habit of taking up arms against unpopular governmental actions. The framers of the Constitution wanted the people to know that tranquility at home was a main concern of the government.
Provide for the Common Defence
Before American colonists took back their independence, the people lived in fear of governmental armies. There was a common belief that armed forces deployed at the behest of the government had the ability to enslave the population. The Preamble’s assurance that the goal of the Constitution was to provide for the defense of all citizens was a necessary reassurance. (Note: “defence” is the British English spelling of “defense.”)
Additionally, the leaders of the burgeoning nation understood that the militias of each individual state had no chance of repelling an attack from other countries. They sought to establish the intent for the states to band together to survive the harsh world and threats of war.
Promote the General Welfare
This phrase endeavored to make it clear that the Constitution’s purpose was to improve the lives of the people, and that there would be no general grant of power to the government. This new concept of government by the people, for the people, required a leap of faith and citizen involvement.
Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity
The framers of the Constitution wanted to offer blessings of liberty, in a country where citizens could look forward to being free. This requires the institution of law and order, which is not tyrannical, but governed by the desires and needs of the people as a whole.
Do Ordain and Establish this Constitution for the United States of America
This final clause restates the name of the document that had, as its primary goal, to ensure that the people themselves have control of their nation, and their government.
The Preamble and Judicial Interpretation
In 1966, the City of Grand Rapids Michigan undertook an urban renewal project. The city wanted owners of buildings in a “blighted,” or run-down area of town to sell their properties under eminent domain, so that the properties could be used to build a hospital complex. Under the plan, the properties taken under eminent domain would be conveyed to St. Mary’s Hospital, a Catholic organization, which would build the medical complex.
Michael Ellis, owner of a medical office in the run-down area, filed a lawsuit in civil court, seeking an injunction against the city, claiming that he had been denied his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. The court, in the lawsuit of Ellis vs. City of Grand Rapids, ruled against Ellis, citing the Preamble to the Constitution, in its decision-making process.
The court recognized that the forefathers were concerned about the health and welfare of the people, as expressed in the Preamble’s statement “promote the general welfare.” The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires that property acquired through eminent domain be used for the public benefit. The court further ruled that improving and promoting healthcare was vital to ensuring the people’s pursuit of happiness, stating:
“St. Mary’s Hospital is unquestionably an integral part of the available hospital resources of the city. The City definitely has the right to act in the interest of the general public welfare even if this has the incidental and indirect effect of benefiting a religious interest.”
Supreme Court Rules on Whether the Preamble Grants Governmental Powers
In the late 1800s, vaccinations were mandatory in Sweden, and Henning Jacobson received his smallpox vaccine as a small child there. Jacobson later immigrated to the U.S. About the turn of the century, Jacobson and his wife became distressed to learn that the smallpox vaccine had become mandatory in their state of Massachusetts, because Jacobson himself, and one of their sons, had suffered terrible adverse effects.
The Jacobsons refused to have their other children vaccinated, and were given the prescribed fine of about $5.00, which is about equal to nearly $150 today. Because small pox is a disease that had visited great suffering, and even death, among the people of the time, most Americans were relieved to know that a vaccine had been discovered. When they found out the vaccines would involve having cowpox injected into their bodies with a sharp needle, many people became fearful.
Jacobson took the matter to the courts, claiming that forcing immunizations on people violated their constitutional right to liberty, as granted to him in the Preamble to the Constitution. There were two important questions in this case: (1) whether the Preamble itself had any legal significance, and (2) whether the government has the right to force immunizations, or healthcare in general, on people who do not wish to participate.
In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Jacobson v Massachusetts, as Henning Jacobson argued that the government does not have the authority to force immunizations on people, as that would violate their right to personal liberty.
During that era, were the leading cause of death among the American people, and attempts to stem the tide were carried out at the local and state levels. No vaccines had yet been created, leaving the officials no choice but to quarantine people who may have been exposed, and to ban potentially disease-carrying ships from entering the harbors. In the late 19th century alone, hundreds of thousands of people suffered and even died from such diseases as smallpox, cholera, typhus, and yellow fever.
No Rights or Powers Granted by the Preamble
After reviewing the evidence in the case, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Government does not receive any of its powers from the Preamble to the Constitution. Any powers assumed by the government must be granted by the Constitution itself, as the Preamble is simply an introduction to the legal document. This also means that no one may base a legal argument on rights supposedly granted to the people by the Preamble.
Jacobson brought up the Fourteenth Amendment, which states:
“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …”
The Court acknowledged that forcing people to get vaccinated restricted one aspect of their personal liberty, but ruled in favor of the Massachusetts law. In doing so, the Court discussed two primary rationales:
Because the epidemic of smallpox had been identified as a grave danger to the public’s health, individual rights and liberty became secondary to the government’s obligation to eradicate the disease. Any personal liberties granted by the Constitution cannot be understood to intrude upon the rights and liberties of the people as a whole. In this example, the objection of a few people to mandatory immunization could not be allowed to interfere with attempts to protect the people in general.
The Court ruled that it is indeed within the “police power” of the government, whether at the local, state, or federal level, to enact laws requiring such vaccinations. It further ruled that whether or not vaccination is the best course of action to protect the public from a devastating disease is not for the courts to decide.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
- Eminent Domain – The government’s right to expropriate private property for public use upon payment or compensation.
- Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
- Police Power – Authority granted by the Tenth Amendment for the government to establish laws, and enforce order, for the good of the health, safety, and general welfare of the people.