The job of a preamble is to set the stage for a document: it lays out the general scope and purpose of a work. In today’s language, we’d call it a mission statement.
As a mission statement, I think the Preamble to the Constitution does very well. It conveys an immense amount of data in a highly economical fashion: it’s one big mutha of a grammatically correct sentence!
About the Language in the Preamble
According to Wikipedia, “the Preamble was placed in the Constitution during the last days of the Constitutional Convention by the Committee on Style [ed. What a great title for a committee!], which wrote its final draft.” This would put the writing of the Preamble around the fall of 1787. At this time, America was just beginning to develop a language of its own.
While we wouldn’t have fully developed and independent voices of writers and orators like Lincoln, Whitman, or Thoreau for another 100 years or so, by the late 1700s, our nation had been far enough removed from the Crown to develop some of its own style.
In the Preamble, we can see that our backwater, colonial forefathers had begun to toss aside the high British constricts of language that might have us dance around our point rather than go straight for the jugular. Niceties, shmicities! Our concrete, somewhat-naive, mush-mouthedness had already begun to flourish! Yankee doodle dandy, baby!
The full text of the Preamble is nothing more than one big ol’ sentence:
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 America.
Breaking Down the Elements
I struggled with one phrase in this sentence. Everything else was gravy. At its heart, the Preamble is a simple sentence: it’s one independent clause.
Subject and Verb of the Clause
Let’s begin with the subject and verb of our clause:
We | do ordain and establish
Verb Function: Direct Object
Both verbs in our compound verb, ordain and establish, give us a direct object: this Constitution. The prepositional phrase, for the United States, modifies the direct object, Constitution, and the prepositional phrase, of America, modifies the object of the preposition, United States.
We | do ordain and establish | this Constitution for the United States of America
Boom. That’s it. We are ordainin’ and establishin’ a constitution! Whatcha gonna do about it King George?
Appositive Phrase in the Subject
Our subject has an appositive phrase, which is a phrase or word that renames a noun (example: Jack’s dog, Rex – “Rex” would be an appositive). In this case, our appositive phrase is: the People of these United States. Today, this phrase is well known and accepted – it’s kind of a part of our emotional fabric: We are the people! Power to us! Ironically, it wasn’t always there!
The back story to how and why the appositive phrase was added reveals that it was more of a legal CYA (cover your …) for future issues than a rallying cry for the masses (see this section of the Wikipedia article for a bit more).
We, the People of the United States, | do ordain and establish | this Constitution for the United States of America
That’s really all there is to this sentence. Oh yeah, there is that pesky infinitive phrase in the middle that explains why we’re creating this constitution. It’s a monster, so hold on!
A Troubling Infinitive Phrase
Here is the offending phrase (which I believe is an infinitive phrase):
…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
I’m 99% sure that this is an infinitive phrase. I know that the words, in order to, are a compound particle, meaning that they require an additional word or words to make sense. If the words, in order, were removed, I’d be 100% positive that I was working with an infinitive verb construction:
To form, establish, insure, provide, promote, and secure, we are creatin’ this here constitution! Booya, Britian!
That being so, I am basing my judgement on nothing more than the fact that I can’t see any other possibility for the phrase, in order to, other than acting as a particle to create an infinitive verb construction in the same way that the word, to, does in an infinitive verb. As such, all we have to do now is evaluate the six verb phrases in the infinitive verb construction:
We are makin’ this here con-stee-two-shun in order to…
- form a more perfect Union
- establish Justice
- insure domestic Tranquility
- provide for the common defence
- promote the general Welfare
- secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
Each verb phrase is giving us a direct object except for number four, which is just a subject/verb construction with the prepositional phrase, for the common defence, tacked on to modify the verb, provide.
This was one of the most frustrating pieces that I’ve ever done! I am not an artist (obviously), but I do think that I can squeak out some cool doodles from time to time. Unfortunately, I kept messing up the drawing on this one. In total, I think I redrew this entire piece three times! I easily have an entire day in this piece. Crazy!
A Call to Grammarians
Anyone who would like to argue with my grammatical choices in this sentence, please feel free to leave a comment below. I totally welcome your critique. I’m not 100% on this one. Your help would be greatly appreciated!
Thanks for reading!