The Preamble to the Constitution: A Close Reading Lesson (2024)


The Articles of Confederation was established in 1781 as the nation’s “first constitution.” Each state governed itself through elected representatives, and the state representatives in turn elected a central government. But the national government was so feeble and its powers so limited that this system proved unworkable. Congress could not impose taxes to cover national expenses, which meant the Confederation was ineffectual. And because all 13 colonies had to ratify amendments, one state’s refusal prevented any reform. By 1786 many far-sighted American leaders saw the need for a more powerful central authority; a convention was called to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787.

The Constitutional Convention met for four months. Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government and then, how to balance and check that power to prevent government abuse.

As debate at the Philadelphia Convention drew to a close, Gouverneur Morris was assigned to the Committee of Style and given the task of wording the Constitution by the committee’s members. Through thoughtful word choice, Morris attempted to put the fundamental principles agreed on by the framers into memorable language.

By looking carefully at the words of the Preamble, comparing it with the similar passages in the opening of the Articles of Confederation, and relating them to historical circ*mstances as well as widely shared political principles such as those found in the Declaration of Independence, students can see how the Preamble reflects the hope and fears of the Framers.

For background information about the history and interpretation of the Constitution, see the following resources:

This lesson is one of a series of complementary EDSITEment lesson plans for intermediate-level students about the foundations of our government. Consider adapting them for your class in the following order:

  • The Argument of the Declaration of Independence
  • (Present lesson plan)
  • Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances:
  • The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country

Content Standards

NCSS.D2.Civ.3.9-12. Analyze the impact of constitutions, laws, treaties, and international agreements on the maintenance of national and international order.

NCSS.D2.Civ.4.9-12. Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.

NCSS.D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

NCSS.D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

NCSS.D2.His.6.9-12. Analyze the ways in which the perspectives of those writing history shaped the history that they produced.

NCSS.D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.10. By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


The following resources are included with this lesson plan to be used in conjunction with the student activities and for teacher preparation.

  • Activity 1. Student Worksheet
  • Activity 2. Teachers Guide to the Preamble
  • Activity 2. Graphic Organizer

Review the Graphic Organizer for Activity 2, which contains the Preamble to the Constitution along with the opening passages of the Articles of Confederation and the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (both from, and make copies for the class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Why Government?

To help students understand the enormous task facing the Americans, pose a hypothetical situation to the class:

Imagine that on a field trip to a wilderness area or sailing trip to a small, remote island, you all became stranded without any communication with parents, the school, or other adults and had little hope of being rescued in the foreseeable future. The area where you’re marooned can provide the basic necessities of food, shelter, and water, but you will have to work together to survive.

Encourage students to think about the next steps they need to take with a general discussion about such matters as:

  • Are you better working together or alone? (Be open to their ideas, but point out reasons why they have a better chance at survival if they work together.)
  • How will you work together?
  • How will you create rules?
  • Who will be responsible for leading the group to help all survive?
  • How will they be chosen?
  • How will you deal with people in the group who may not be following the rules?

Distribute the Student Worksheet handout, which contains the seven questions below. [Note: These questions are related to the seven phrases from the Preamble but this relationship in not given on the handout.]

Divide students into small groups and have each group brainstorm a list of things they would have to consider in developing its own government. [Note: You can have all groups answer all seven questions or assign one question for each group.] Ask students to be detailed in their answers and be able to support their recommendations.

  1. How will you make sure everyone sticks together and works towards the common goal of getting rescued? (form a more perfect union)
  1. How will you make sure that anyone who feels unfairly treated will have a place to air complaints? (establishing justice)
  1. How will you make sure that people can have peace and quiet? (ensuring domestic tranquility)
  1. How will you make sure that group members will help if outsiders arrive who threaten your group? (providing for the common defense)
  1. How will you make sure that the improvements you make on the island (such as shelters, fireplaces and the like) will be used fairly? (promoting the general welfare)
  1. How will you make sure that group members will be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else? (securing the blessing of liberty to ourselves)
  1. How will you make sure that the rules and organizations you develop protect future generations? (securing the blessing of liberty to our posterity)

While students are working in their groups, write or project the following seven headers on the front board in this order:

  • Secure the Blessings of Liberty for our Posterity,
  • Promote the General Welfare,
  • Establish Justice,
  • Form a more perfect Union,
  • Insure Domestic Tranquility,
  • Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves, and
  • Provide for the Common Defense

After the groups have finished discussing their questions, have them meet as a class. First ask them to identify which question (by number) from their handout goes with which section of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution you’ve listed on the front board. Next, have students share their recommendations to the questions and allow other groups to comment, add, or disagree with the recommendations made.

Exit Ticket:

Encourage class discussion of the following questions:

  • Having just released themselves from Britain's monarchy, what would the colonists fear most?
  • Judging from some of the complaints the colonists had against Britain, what might be some of their concerns for any future government?

As in the hypothetical situation described above, what decisions would the colonists have to make about forming a new government out of 13 colonies which, until 1776, had basically been running themselves independently?

Activity 2. What the Preamble Says

Review the Teachers' Guide to the Preamble, which parses each of the phrases of the Preamble and contrasts them with the equivalent passages in the Articles and the Declaration. Teachers can use this guide as a source for a short lecture before the activity and as a kind of answer sheet for the activity.

In this activity, students investigate the Preamble to the Constitution by comparing and contrasting it with the opening language of the Articles of Confederation. They will:

  • understand how the Preamble of the Constitution (in outlining the goals of the new government under the Constitution) was written with the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation in mind, aiming to create “a more perfect union,” and
  • understand how the Preamble drew its justification from the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

The aim of this activity is to show students, through a close reading of the Preamble, how its style and content reflect some of the aspirations of the framers for the future of republican government in America.

[Note: teachers should define “diction,” “connotation,” and “denotation” to the students before beginning to ask students to differentiate between language in the two documents.]

Distribute copies of the Graphic Organizer and questions to all students and have them complete it in their small groups (or individually as a homework assignment).

Exit Ticket:

Have one or two students or groups of students summarize their conclusions concerning the critical differences between the Articles and the Preamble, citing the sources of these documents as referents.


Have students answer the following in a brief, well-constructed essay:

Using the ideas and information presented in this lesson, explain how the wording and structure of the Preamble demonstrate that the Constitution is different from the Articles of Confederation.

Note: For an excellent example of what can be inferred from the language and structure of the Preamble, teachers should review and model this passage by Professor Garret Epps from “The Poetry of the Preamble” on the Oxford University Press blog (2013):

“Form, establish, insure, provide, promote, secure”: these are strong verbs that signify governmental power, not restraint. “We the people” are to be bound—into a stronger union. We will be protected against internal disorder—that is, against ourselves—and against foreign enemies. The “defence” to be provided is “common,” general, spread across the country. The Constitution will establish justice; it will promote the “general” welfare; it will secure our liberties. The new government, it would appear, is not the enemy of liberty but its chief agent and protector.

Students could be asked whether they agree or disagree with the above interpretation. They should be expected to provide evidence-based arguments for their position.

Lesson Extensions

The aspirational rhetoric of the Preamble has inspired various social movements throughout our nation’s history. In particular, two 19th-century developments come to mind: the struggles for abolitionism and women's suffrage. Examples of oratory from each movement are provided below. In response to one of these excerpts, students can write a short essay about how the words of the Preamble affected the relevant movement.

  • Students should ascertain what the Preamble meant to the movement and how it was used to make an appeal to the nation. The essay might address the question of how and why those such as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, who at their time were excluded from the full range of rights and libertiesensured by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, responded to the principles expressed in the Preamble.
  • Students should then argue either for or against the interpretation of the Preamble advanced in the excerpt, drawing from the knowledge gained in this lesson.

Be sure that the essay has a strong thesis (a non-obvious, debatable proposition about the Preamble) that students support with evidence from the texts used in this lesson.

Example 1. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)

Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.

Example 2. Susan B. Anthony, “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” (1873)

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government—the ballot.

The Preamble to the Constitution: A Close Reading Lesson (2024)


What is the preamble to the Constitution reading? ›

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 ...

What is the basic message of the preamble of the Constitution? ›

The Preamble describes the core values that the Constitution exists to achieve: democratic government, effective governance, justice, freedom, and equality.

What three central concepts does the Preamble impart to the reader? ›

2 The Preamble itself imparts three central concepts to the reader: (1) the source of power to enact the Constitution (i.e., “the People of the United States”); (2) the broad ends to which the Constitution is “ordain[ed] and establish[ed]”; and (3) the authors' intent for the Constitution to be a legal instrument of ...

How do you explain the preamble of the Constitution? ›

The Preamble to the Constitution is a reflection of the core constitutional values that embody the Constitution. It declares India to be a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic committed to Justice, Equality and Liberty for the people.

What is the main idea of the preamble? ›

The preamble sets the stage for the Constitution ( It clearly communicates the intentions of the framers and the purpose of the document. The preamble is an introduction to the highest law of the land; it is not the law. It does not define government powers or individual rights.

Does the Constitution mention God? ›

While the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, nearly all state constitutions reference either God or the divine, according to a 2017 analysis. God also appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.

What does the preamble mean for kids? ›

The preamble is one of the most well-known parts of the Constitution. Beginning the Constitution with 'We the People' was to show that the new government was for the people and by the people. The preamble then continues on to list what the new government does to protect each person and our posterity.

What are the three most important words in the preamble? ›

The first three words, "We the People," have been interpreted to mean that the Constitution (and therefore all law in the U.S.) stems from the people - not individual states. This sets the tone for the entire document, and in turn, the laws of the United States.

What are the first 3 words of the preamble Why are those words important? ›

Its first three words – “We The People” – affirm that the government of the United States exists to serve its citizens. The supremacy of the people through their elected representatives is recognized in Article I, which creates a Congress consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

What is the first word of the preamble? ›

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution begins with the words – “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA”. These words indicate the ultimate sovereignty of the people of India.

What is the preamble in short words? ›

1. : an introductory statement. especially : the introductory part of a constitution or statute that usually states the reasons for and intent of the law. 2. : an introductory fact or circ*mstance.

What is preamble in one word answer? ›

The word "preamble" means "introduction." It comes from the Latin for "to walk ahead," and it is synonymous with preface, prologue, and prelude.

What is the preamble simplified? ›

The preamble is a lovely, simple paragraph that defines the reason for the Constitution and the new government that Constitution confines. Hence, the preamble says… “in order to … [we] do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.

What is the original text of the Preamble? ›

The text reads as follows:

EQUALITY of status and opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY, this twenty-sixth day of November 1949, do ADOPT, ENACT, and GIVE OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.”

Where is God mentioned in the Constitution? ›

While the U.S. Constitution does not mention God, nearly all state constitutions reference either God or the divine, according to a 2017 analysis. God also appears in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance and on U.S. currency.

What does "to ourselves and our posterity" mean? ›

The phrase 'to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity' appears in the Preamble to the Constitution. The last word is posterity, meaning children and future generations, rather than prosperity or wealth.

What does the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence say? ›

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

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