Recent debates over the Second Amendment – the “militia” and guns, etc – made me wonder: Did the drafters of the Constitution mean for us to read it as written, interpreting it based upon their understanding of the words they used – “original intent” – or is our foundational document, uh, intended to be read in the context of what is happening in our present day world, allowing for interpretive changes based on modern culture and customs?
In addressing or debating that question, it is true that none of us were there and none of us can communicate with their souls to determine their intent, however we have lots of evidence that speaks to us pretty clearly.
- It generally agreed that Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots were sentient, rational, cognizant, self-aware Homo sapiens.
- They wrote it down. If they had intended the principles stated in the document to have an evolving nature, they probably would not have wasted the parchment or the ink. More likely, they would have just shaken hands, tipped their hats and agreed to reconvene in, say, a week or so, and see if a consensus still survived. That would have kept them and their descendants pretty damn busy.
- Regarding the things they did put in writing, they negotiated at great length and with considerable passion. If the words didn’t really matter that much, if the document were meant to be evanescent, would they have gone to such pains to get it right?
- The words they chose had specific meanings. The “King’s English” was the language of the realm. There were no misspellings and no grammatical errors. The overall structure and composition was clear and concise, very well ordered and organized. Nothing about the document shows carelessness in style or indefinite meaning. It follows that their choice of words was intentional, not accidental. Again, had they thought the words were subject to interpretation from generation to generation, they would not have made the effort.
- Many of the signatories of that most brilliant political and philosophical document had watched friends and family members die violent deaths, had risked their own lives, fortunes and sacred honor for the privilege of founding a nation of laws. Seems logical to conclude that they figured it was worth the effort it took to put their thoughts down on paper for clarity and certainty.
- They said what were their intentions regarding interpretation. For you and I, the most important words in the document are “our Posterity.” You and I, noteworthy parties to and beneficiaries of the document, even have a named role therein. If they didn’t intend for us to be bound by their words, would they have bothered to mention us? The Constitution was not written to serve as the bylaws of a fraternity. The Founders wrote it “in order to form a more perfect union” and establish a body to govern that nation.
Our Founders were not cavemen. They were not scribbling random figures on the wall with charcoal. Let’s take them at their word and abide by the Constitution – always – or amend it.
Categories: Original Intent