Preamble to the United States Constitution
The Preamble to the United States Constitution is a brief introductory statement
A preamble is an introductory and expressionary statement in a document that explains the document's purpose and underlying philosophy. When applied to the opening paragraphs of a statute, it may recite historical facts pertinent to the subject of the statute...

 of the Constitution's
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

 fundamental purposes and guiding principles. It states in general terms, and courts have referred to it as reliable evidence of, the Founding Fathers'
Founding Fathers of the United States
The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were political leaders and statesmen who participated in the American Revolution by signing the United States Declaration of Independence, taking part in the American Revolutionary War, establishing the United States Constitution, or by some...

 intentions regarding the Constitution's meaning and what they hoped the Constitution would achieve.


Meaning and application

The Preamble serves solely as an introduction, and does not assign powers to the federal government
Federal government of the United States
The federal government of the United States is the national government of the constitutional republic of fifty states that is the United States of America. The federal government comprises three distinct branches of government: a legislative, an executive and a judiciary. These branches and...

, nor does it provide specific limitations on government action. Due to the Preamble's limited nature, no court has ever used it as a decisive factor in case adjudication
Adjudication is the legal process by which an arbiter or judge reviews evidence and argumentation including legal reasoning set forth by opposing parties or litigants to come to a decision which determines rights and obligations between the parties involved....

, except as regards frivolous litigation
Frivolous litigation
In law, frivolous litigation is the practice of starting or carrying on law suits that, due to their lack of legal merit, have little to no chance of being won. The term does not include cases that may be lost due to other matters not related to legal merit...


Judicial relevance

The courts have shown interest in any clues they can find in the Preamble regarding the Constitution's meaning. Courts have developed several techniques for interpreting
Statutory interpretation
Statutory interpretation is the process by which courts interpret and apply legislation. Some amount of interpretation is always necessary when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in many cases, there is some ambiguity or...

 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, 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 usually 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
Habeas corpus
is a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention. The remedy can be sought by the prisoner or by another person coming to his aid. Habeas corpus originated in the English legal system, but it is now available in many nations...

, trial by jury
Jury trial
A jury trial is a legal proceeding in which a jury either makes a decision or makes findings of fact which are then applied by a judge...

, and sovereign immunity
Sovereign immunity
Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine by which the sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune from civil suit or criminal prosecution....

), and courts deem 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
Philadelphia Convention
The Constitutional Convention took place from May 14 to September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to address problems in governing the United States of America, which had been operating under the Articles of Confederation following independence from...

, 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 ruled 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 rendering 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. Substantively, the case was about eminent domain
Eminent domain
Eminent domain , compulsory purchase , resumption/compulsory acquisition , or expropriation is an action of the state to seize a citizen's private property, expropriate property, or seize a citizen's rights in property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner's consent...

. The City of Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is a city in the U.S. state of Michigan. The city is located on the Grand River about 40 miles east of Lake Michigan. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 188,040. In 2010, the Grand Rapids metropolitan area had a population of 774,160 and a combined statistical area, Grand...

 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
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

 organization. This area of substantive constitutional law is governed by the Fifth Amendment
Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights, protects against abuse of government authority in a legal procedure. Its guarantees stem from English common law which traces back to the Magna Carta in 1215...

, 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. United States v. Kinnebrew Motor Co. is an example of this. In that case, the defendants were a car manufacturer and dealership indicted for a criminal violation of the National Industrial Recovery Act
National Industrial Recovery Act
The National Industrial Recovery Act , officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933 The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933 The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), officially known as the Act of June 16, 1933 (Ch. 90, 48 Stat. 195, formerly...

 (NIRA). The Congress passed the statute in order to cope with the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, 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
Commerce Clause
The Commerce Clause is an enumerated power listed in the United States Constitution . The clause states that the United States Congress shall have power "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." Courts and commentators have tended to...

. 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 this case, particularly in the face of an obvious national emergency like the Great Depression. The court, however, dismissed this argument as erroneous and insisted that the only relevant issue was whether the transaction that prompted the indictment actually constituted "interstate commerce" under the Supreme Court's precedents that interpreted the scope of the Commerce Clause.

Aspects of national sovereignty

The Preamble's reference to the "United States of America" has been interpreted over the years to make revised claims as to the nature of the governmental entity that the Constitution created (i.e., the federal government). In contemporary international law
International law
Public international law concerns the structure and conduct of sovereign states; analogous entities, such as the Holy See; and intergovernmental organizations. To a lesser degree, international law also may affect multinational corporations and individuals, an impact increasingly evolving beyond...

, the world consists of sovereign state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

s (or "sovereign nations" in modern equivalent). A state is said to be "sovereign," if any of its ruling inhabitants are the supreme authority over it; the concept is distinct from mere land-title or "ownership." While each state was originally recognized as sovereign unto itself, the post-Civil War Supreme Court held that the "United States of America" consists of only one sovereign nation with respect to foreign affairs and international relations; the individual states may not conduct foreign relations. Although the Constitution expressly delegates to the federal government only some of the usual powers of sovereign governments (such as the powers to declare war and 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. Thus, no state may interfere with the federal government's operations as though its sovereignty is superior to the federal government's (discussed more below); for example, states may not interfere with the federal government's near absolute discretion to sell its own real property
Real property
In English Common Law, real property, real estate, realty, or immovable property is any subset of land that has been legally defined and the improvements to it made by human efforts: any buildings, machinery, wells, dams, ponds, mines, canals, roads, various property rights, and so forth...

, even when that real property is located in one or another state. The federal government exercises its 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. In addition, the doctrine of separation of powers
Separation of powers
The separation of powers, often imprecisely used interchangeably with the trias politica principle, is a model for the governance of a state. The model was first developed in ancient Greece and came into widespread use by the Roman Republic as part of the unmodified Constitution of the Roman Republic...

 functions as a limitation on each branch of the federal government's exercise of sovereign power.

A unique aspect of the American system of government is that, while the rest of the world views the United States as one country, domestically American constitutional law recognizes a federation of state governments separate from (and not subdivisions of) the federal government, each of which is sovereign over its own affairs. Sometimes, the Supreme Court has even analogized the States to being foreign countries to each other to explain the American system of State sovereignty. However, each state's sovereignty is limited by the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of both the United States as a nation and each state; in the event of a conflict, a valid federal law controls. As a result, although the federal government is (as discussed above) recognized as sovereign and has supreme power over those matters within its control, the American constitutional system also recognizes the concept of "State sovereignty," where certain matters are susceptible to government regulation, but only at the State and not the federal level. For example, although the federal government prosecutes crimes against the United States (such as treason, or interference with the postal system), the general administration of criminal justice is reserved to the States. Notwithstanding sometimes broad statements by the Supreme Court regarding the "supreme" and "exclusive" powers the State and Federal governments exercise, the Supreme Court and State courts have also recognized that much of their power is held and exercised concurrently.

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
Sovereignty is the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a geographic area, such as a territory. It can be found in a power to rule and make law that rests on a political fact for which no purely legal explanation can be provided...

 from the people
A republic is a form of government in which the people, or some significant portion of them, have supreme control over the government and where offices of state are elected or chosen by elected people. In modern times, a common simplified definition of a republic is a government where the head of...

, (whereas "United Colonies" had identified external monarchical sovereignty) 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
Federal government of the United States
The federal government of the United States is the national government of the constitutional republic of fifty states that is the United States of America. The federal government comprises three distinct branches of government: a legislative, an executive and a judiciary. These branches and...

 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.

The popular nature of the Constitution

The Constitution claims to be an act of "We the People." However, because it represents a general social contract
Social contract
The social contract is an intellectual device intended to explain the appropriate relationship between individuals and their governments. Social contract arguments assert that individuals unite into political societies by a process of mutual consent, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept...

, there are limits on the ability of individual citizens to pursue legal claims allegedly arising out of the Constitution. For example, if a law was enacted which violated the Constitution, not just anybody could challenge the statute's constitutionality
Constitutionality is the condition of acting in accordance with an applicable constitution. Acts that are not in accordance with the rules laid down in the constitution are deemed to be ultra vires.-See also:*ultra vires*Company law*Constitutional law...

 in court; instead, only an individual who was negatively affected by the unconstitutional statute could bring such a challenge. For example, a person claiming certain benefits that are created by a statute cannot then challenge, on constitutional grounds, the administrative mechanism that awards them. These same principles apply to corporate entities, and can implicate the doctrine of exhaustion of remedies
Exhaustion of remedies
The doctrine of exhaustion of remedies prevents a litigant from seeking a remedy in a new court or jurisdiction until all claims or remedies have been exhausted in the original one. The doctrine was originally created by case law based on the principles of comity.In the United States, exhaustion...


In this same vein, courts will not answer hypothetical questions about the constitutionality of a statute. The judiciary does not have the authority to invalidate unconstitutional laws solely because they are unconstitutional, but may declare a law unconstitutional if its operation would injure a person's interests. For example, creditors who lose some measure of what they are owed when a bankrupt’s debts are discharged cannot claim injury, because Congress’ power to enact bankruptcy laws is also in the Constitution and inherent in it is the ability to declare certain debts valueless. Similarly, while a person may not generally challenge as unconstitutional a law that they are not accused of violating, once charged, a person may challenge the law's validity, even if the challenge is unrelated to the circumstances of the crime.

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, a serviceman in China during World War II was convicted of murder in the United States Court for China
United States Court for China
The United States Court for China was a United States District Court that had extraterritorial jurisdiction over U.S. citizens in China. It existed from 1906 to 1943 and had jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, with appeals taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San...

. 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:
  • 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
    U.S. state
    A U.S. state is any one of the 50 federated states of the United States of America that share sovereignty with the federal government. Because of this shared sovereignty, an American is a citizen both of the federal entity and of his or her state of domicile. Four states use the official title of...

    " 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").
  • 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
    Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rico , officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.Puerto Rico comprises an...

     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
    Downes v. Bidwell
    Downes v. Bidwell, , was a case in which the United States Supreme Court decided whether United States territories were subject to the provisions and protections of the United States Constitution. This question is sometimes stated as "does the Constitution follow the flag?". The resulting decision...

    , , the Court held that the Congress could constitutionally enact a statute taxing goods sent from Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rico
    Puerto Rico , officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic and west of both the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.Puerto Rico comprises an...

     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 law
    Ex post facto law
    An ex post facto law or retroactive law is a law that retroactively changes the legal consequences of actions committed or relationships that existed prior to the enactment of the law...

    s, 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.
  • Ochoa v. Hernandez y Morales, : the Fifth Amendment's
    Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution
    The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights, protects against abuse of government authority in a legal procedure. Its guarantees stem from English common law which traces back to the Magna Carta in 1215...

     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.

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
Nullification (U.S. Constitution)
Nullification is a legal theory that a State has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that state has deemed unconstitutional...

 of any federal law, dissolution of the Union, or secession
Secession is the act of withdrawing from an organization, union, or especially a political entity. Threats of secession also can be a strategy for achieving more limited goals.-Secession theory:...

 from it, are not contemplated by the Constitution.

See also

  • List of songs from Schoolhouse Rock (The Preamble)

External links

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