Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by Constitutional Militia
The “technical” meaning of a word or phrase is the particular meaning the law attaches to it, which almost always will be narrower and more precise than the meaning attributed to it in common parlance or in some general definition from a popular dictionary. And when the issue is the interpretation of a specifically legal document, no document could be more specifically legal than “the supreme Law of the Land” itself—the United States Constitution.
Contemporary dictionaries are not necessarily definitive as to the meaning of any word or technical phrase in the Constitution.
A procedure popular among defenders of the Second Amendment who are attempting to define “[a] well regulated Militia” is to cite definitions from then contemporary dictionaries. Relying on such methodology alone results in shoddy constitutional analysis. For the “technical” meaning of a word or phrase is the particular meaning the law attaches to it, which almost always will be narrower and more precise than the meaning attributed to it in common parlance or in some general definition from a popular dictionary. And when the issue is the interpretation of a specifically legal document—and no document could be more specifically legal than “the supreme Law of the Land” itself.
The legal term “well regulated Militia” is not definitive from any dictionary from 1791 or today.
To Americans during the pre-constitutional period, the verb “regulate” meant “[t]o adjust by rule or method” and “[t]o direct”. And the adverb “well” meant “[s]kilfully; properly”—“[i]t is used much in composition, to express any thing right, laudable, or not defective”. By themselves, though, these general dictionary definitions are not conclusive of the constitutional question, because they do not specify by what “rule or method” the Militia are to be “adjust[ed]” and “direct[ed]”, and in comparison to what standard any particular “adjust[ment]” and “direct[ion]” should be deemed “right, laudable, or not defective”.
Another example of the insufficiency of contemporary dictionaries with respect to understanding the constitutional meaning of “[a] well regulated Militia” would be both the first and fourth editions of Samuel Johnson’s famous A Dictionary of the English Language which defined “militia” as “[t]he trainbands; the standing force of a nation”; defined “trainbands” as “[t]he militia; the part of the community trained to martial exercise”; and defined “regulate” as “[t]o adjust by rule or method”. From this alone, however, it would have been impossible for anyone in 1791, and remains impossible for anyone today, to describe with specificity or surety what the Second Amendment meant or still means by “[a] well regulated Militia”. To qualify as such a “Militia”, what “part of the community” must be “trained”, to what “martial exercise”, and by what “rule or method” that will enable it to constitute a “standing force”? No dictionary by itself can answer any of these questions.
During the entire pre-constitutional period, the common meanings of what became the constitutional phrases “Militia of the several States”, “organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia”, “[a] well regulated Militia”, and “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” were their “technical” meanings, because the “Militia” that existed in that era were not some theoretical “militia”, but instead the particular “Militia” that were formed and operated under the aegis of specific statutes. The “technical” meanings of all these phrases were defined initially in the statutes; and from these “technical” meanings the common meanings derived through Americans’ actual experiences as the statutes were applied.
WE THE PEOPLE’S authority to interpret the Constitution is not unlimited. The rule has always been (and today remains) that statutes should be enforced as written. The Constitution is a statute. In every case, then, the Constitution must be interpreted “in such a manner, as, consistently with the words, shall fully and completely effectuate the whole objects of it. * * * No court of justice”—including the ultimate human “court of justice”, WE THE PEOPLE themselves—“can be authorized so to construe any clause of the Constitution as to defeat its obvious ends, when another construction, equally accordant with the words and sense thereof, will enforce and protect them.”
At the end of the pre-constitutional period, WE THE PEOPLE not only incorporated directly into the original Constitution’s federal system the Militia that these statutes had regulated, but also emphasized the constitutional authority and political indispensability of such statutorily “well regulated Militia” through the Second Amendment. So, because, in the late 1700s, WE THE PEOPLE drew the meanings of “technical” words and phrases from the relevant laws of England, the Colonies, and the independent States as befitted the particular case at hand, it is from these pre-constitutional statutes that the constitutional meaning of “Militia”, in all its particulars, must be gleaned.