What's in a Constitutional Preamble?

LEARNING GATEWAYS


This Learning Gateway appeared in Insights on Law & Society, Vol. 15 No. 3. For more teaching resources, subscribe to Insights via the ABA Webstore.


Many constitutions around the world include a preamble, or introductory text that provides a statement about the full text that follows. Constitutional preambles tend to contain the principles and purposes of the government that the following document outlines. In this lesson, students study the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and then compare it to preambles from around the world. Students also use a chart to identify common preamble phrases and then discuss what these phrases might indicate about the government that is using them.


Materials

Preamble of U.S. Constitution

Preambles from constitutions around the world

Common Preamble Phrases chart


Procedure


1) Depending on student’s understanding of the U.S. Constitution and its preamble, discuss with students the definition of the preamble and its purpose. Share with students the Preamble of the United States Constitution:

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.

2) Ask students to discuss what they see in the Preamble of the United States Constitution:


  • When was this Preamble written?
  • Who is issuing the statement contained in the Preamble?
  • What does the Preamble say about why they are issuing the statement?

4) Ask each group of students to consider the following questions in relation to their document(s):


  • From which country’s constitution is this preamble? When was it written?
  • Who is issuing the preamble?
  • What are the purposes of government that the preamble identifies?


5) Share the Common Preamble Phrases chart with students. Ask them to study the chart, and then see how their preamble makes use of any of the common preamble phrases. Students could consider the following questions:


  • Do any of the phrases on the chart appear in your assigned preamble?
  • Are there key phrases in the preamble that do not appear on the chart?
  • What do you think we can learn about the country by reading this preamble and its use, or nonuse, of common phrases?

Common Preamble Phrases

Phrase

First Mention

Total number (%) of preambles

We the peopleUnited States of America, 178970 (14.7%)
Rule of lawBavaria, 181852 (10.9%)
Rights of manHaiti, 180547 (10%)
Economic and socialFrance, 194943 (9%)
Name of godSpain, 180843 (9%)
We the representativesVenezuela, 183034 (7.1%)
Universal Declaration of Human RightsRwanda, 196223 (4.8%)
Give to ourselvesIceland, 192021 (4.4%)
Principles of DemocracyPortugal, 183820 (4.2%)
Working peopleMongolia, 192419 (3.9%)

Source: Comparative Constitutions Project, University of Illinois, catalog of 476 constitutions



6) Ask each group to designate a spokesperson to present the preambles to the rest of the class. Groups might develop a 3-minute presentation on their preamble, sharing what they have learned.




Extended Activity

Students might research the preamble of their state constitution, and compare it to the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution and those of other countries around the world. They might also use the Common Preamble Phrases chart to identify common phrases. Constitutional preambles from state constitutions are available at Ballotpedia.




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