The Evolution of the Preamble
This short activity helps students compare two drafts of the Preamble to the United States Constitution. It contains scaffolds for low-level readers.
Students will be able to identify significant changes in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
Students will choose which version of the Preamble best matches a series of historical understandings about the U.S. Constitution.
Students will explain what details helped them match the correct version of the Preamble to each historical understanding.
Step 1: Project or display the following historical understandings about the U.S. Constitution and read them out loud to students:
The Constitution is an agreement between the national government and the people.
The Constitution sets up a government that will make sure all citizens are treated fairly.
The Constitution sets up a national government rather than separate state governments.
Tell students that we can see these ideas expressed in the first words of the U.S. Constitution. Pass out Versions A and B of the Preamble and/or project them on overhead or screen. As a class, read the two documents out loud together, either with student volunteers or having students follow along silently as the teacher reads. Be sure to read the text of the Preambles as well as the short descriptions (in italics) that precede the text. The teacher may want to have students underline or highlight unknown words or phrases in the text.
Step 2: (Optional) If the teacher decides it is helpful with his or her students, pass out “Reading the Constitution” which provides some scaffolds to help students break down the final version of the Preamble (Version B). Working independently or in pairs, students should use the primary source document to complete the worksheet. There is space for students to define unknown words or phrases, either by consulting a dictionary or the teacher or other students. Before moving on to the next step, the teacher should review the correct answers to the worksheet and point to details in the text that help students arrive at the correct answers.
Step 3: Pass out the worksheet “Understanding the Preamble.” Students should complete it individually. Students may use the primary sources and, if they completed it in Step 2, the scaffold worksheet. The teacher should review the directions with the students before they complete the worksheet.
Step 4: (Optional) The teacher may choose to discuss student responses on "Understanding the Preamble." Specifically, the teacher may want to probe students' observations about the changes between the two drafts and what students feel is important about those changes.
Among the many debates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the changes between the first and final draft of the Constitution are easy to overlook. A "Committee of Style", headed by Gouverneur Morris, presented a final draft in September 1787. As historian Carol Berkin notes, "Awkward phrasing and stilted language had been transformed, and crisp sentences had replaced overly wordy ones." Where there had been 23 articles before, the final draft was condensed into seven.
Of these changes, perhaps the most eloquent are those found in the Preamble. While the early draft simply noted that the Constitution was ordained, declared and established by the people of the thirteen colonies, the final draft had "emotional force" and a "nationalist vision."
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “The Evolution of the Preamble,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed January 20, 2021, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1652.