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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter June 16, 2018

Constitutional Preambles as Narratives of Peoplehood

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From the journal ICL Journal


Most constitutions start with a preamble. A constitutional preamble is a text designed to introduce the rest of the constitution. Often, it is also meant to give a concise statement of the nature of the system that the constitution establishes. While they may differ in style and length, most preambles seem to perform two primary functions. First, they declare or identify the source of authority for the document. In most preambles, it is ‘we the people’ that is invoked as the legitimate source of authority. Second, most preambles engage in an explicit attempt to project an identity for ‘we the people.’ At times, the people is defined through an extended historical biography. At other times, it is the presumed common ethnic origin or religious membership that is said to establish the bond, whether the people is territorially bound or not. Still at other times, it is the existence of common political and moral principles that is thought to make up the core constitutive elements of who the people are.

Whatever the strategy, preambles attempt to imagine a usable political identity for the people, its collective agency. ‘The people’ are viewed with sufficient agency capable of ‘ordaining’ or ‘granting’ the constitutional document to themselves. Of course, in many cases ‘we the people’ are the very creation of the document itself. Under this account, the ‘people’ are simultaneously the author and product of the constitution. In this sense, preambles are performative in nature: they constitute the people as they at the same time declare that the people are their authors. Through a close study of the constitutional preambles of all countries currently in existence, this article explores how preambles narrate a politically serviceable identity for ‘the people’. Whatever else they are meant to do, preambles are narratives of peoplehood. The formal legal status of preambles might be uncertain, but what is not in doubt and what has largely been neglected is the fact that preambles are also means through which a people attempts to imagine and solidify its identity. As Benedict Anderson long ago explained, an imagined identity is neither true nor false—it simply is. This article explores the processes by which this imagining takes place and the purposes for which it is adopted.


I thank Adam Feibelman for a detailed comment on an earlier version of the manuscript. I have benefited greatly from conversations with many friends and colleagues about one or another aspect of the arguments made in the article. I thank them all. I would especially like to thank Jörg Fedtke and Keith Werhan for the many instructive conversations I had with them on the issue of constitutional identity. I would also like to thank an anonymous reviewer of the manuscript for the Journal for helpful comments. Finally, I thank Victoria McIntyre for the excellent research assistance she provided in the preparation of this manuscript.

Published Online: 2018-06-16
Published in Print: 2018-06-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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