The Preamble to the Constitution as Literature

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13866

The United States Constitution was the result of much deliberation and almost did not get passed. The Preamble to the Constitution had familiar themes and explained the purpose of the U.S.'s existence

categories

Writing

subject
English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

Modern-day politicians are known for giving speeches.

Watch this quick clip from Ronald Reagan's famous words: "Tear Down this Wall", courtesy of CNN:

Although short, Reagan's speech was extremely impactful.

Before television, radio, and the internet, politicians expressed themselves through the written word.

The Preamble to the Constitution is an example of a short but very impactful document.

James Madison

james madison on money

James Madison wrote the Constitution of the United States.

The United States was originally governed by the Articles of Confederation; however, this document did not establish a strong enough government for the new country. For example, the federal government was not even permitted to collect taxes from the states.

The Founding Fathers developed a new framework for American government in an attempt to combat this chaos.

James Madison, who was extremely well-educated, was tasked with putting all these ideas into writing.

Preamble

us constitution and quill

  • How did Madison start this monumental document?

In just 52 words, he laid out the purpose of the U.S. Constitution while referencing the common theme at the time of liberty.

Let's look at the text!

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.

  • What is being said in this text?

The beginning and ending of the Preamble can be read as a single, simple sentence:

We the People of the United States do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

  • Is that sentence very enlightening?
  • Does it give the document purpose or meaning for existing?

Not really. Instead, it is what is written in the middle of that statement that gives the document its purpose.

Purpose

The Preamble explains that the purpose of the Constitution is to modify the current country to create a better government.

The goal of the Constitution is to establish a judicial system, ensure peace and negotiation domestically, create a military, ensure the government acts in the interests of all people, and maintain the government to ensure the country's descendants also benefit.

Remember, this document was meant to completely replace an already established government, so it had to have a good reason for existing.

Themes

us money

For the new Constitution to become law, nine of the original 13 states had to ratify it.

  • What themes did Madison utilize in an attempt to persuade those states and the other Founding Fathers to accept it?

The document starts with the phrase "We the people". This is significant because it represents the idea that the government is of, for, and by the people. The new Constitution may have given more power to the government than the Articles of Confederation, but it would still be a government made up of the citizens.

At the time, all the European governments had strong kings and queens. The United States was the first instance of a government made up of elected officials.

Another theme present in this Preamble is the idea of liberty.

  • What exactly is liberty?

It can be difficult to establish a single definition because the word means different things to different people. However, even back in the late 1700s, all Americans wanted liberty even if they did not agree on what that meant.

  • Do you think if you lived in the 1700s, the Preamble would have persuaded you to ratify the Constitution?

But wait, there is one more characteristic to this text!

Rhetorical Devices

parallelism

Rhetorical devices are powerful tools used to enhance one's writing.

Politicians typically use them in speeches by calling others to action, like Ronald Reagan did above.

  • Do you see any in the Preamble to the Constitution?

The main rhetorical device present in this document is parallelism.

You probably recognized it even if you did not know its name. Parallelism is when a text is organized in a "parallel" or repetitive way.

In the Preamble, Madison uses parallelism when listing what the country will do to create a more perfect union. The United States will:

  • establish Justice,
  • insure domestic Tranquility,
  • provide for the common defense,
  • promote the general Welfare,
  • and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,

The verbs are in bold and the nouns are italicized.

  • Do you think this rhetorical device strengthens the meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution in any way?

Keep this question in mind as you head on to the Got It? section.

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