Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by Constitutional Militia
The Meaning of Words and Phrases in the Constitution
The meanings of words in the Constitution do not change from their original intent simply because some novel theory of interpretation has fortuitously become fashionable among intellectuals and politicians. For this would make ever-changing notions of construction—and their authors, exponents, and political beneficiaries—superior to the actual terms of the Constitution as the controlling body of law. The Constitution would then become merely a mirror for the protean fads that catch the fancy of politicians, the legal intelligentsia, and special interest groups, rather than a statement of powers and disabilities of government upon which a society existing across generations could rely for continuity, coherence, and clarity.
Perhaps surprisingly (given the prevalence of the “living” Constitution in judicial opinions of the late 1900s), the Supreme Court has traditionally recognized that the Framers of the Constitution, writing for WE THE PEOPLE, employed words in “their natural sense”; in their “natural signification”; with their “natural meaning”; in their “normal and ordinary* * * meaning”; with the meaning they had “in common use”, in “common parlance”, or in “ordinary acceptation”; in a “sense most obvious to * * * common understanding”; and, generally, in their common sense. Not, however, the words’ peculiar meaning today, if that differs from their usual meaning from the late 1700s. Rather, the most straightforward construction of the Constitution looks to “[w]hat * * * those who framed and adopted it understood [its] terms to designate and include”—“that sense in which [the words were] generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended”, the common understanding “when the Constitution was adopted”, “the common parlance of the times in which the Constitution was written” or “according to their accepted meaning in that day”, Note the emphasis on “common” parlance and understanding—not the gnosis or intuition of a judicial or academic elite.