Last Updated on March 8, 2023 by Constitutional Militia
Words and Phrases in the Constitution
That certain words may have developed different meanings over time is inadmissible as an argument for construing the Constitution. For this particular procedure would amount, not to reinterpretation, but to misinterpretation. To be sure, “in the course of time, as is often the case with language, the meaning of words or terms is changed”; but, even so, the meaning of the Constitution does not change pari passu. the “meaning [of constitutional provisions] is changeless; . . . only their application . . . is extensible.” “What [the Constitution] meant one adopted it still means for the purpose of interpretation,” notwithstanding swings in public opinion at home and abroad, changes in “the ebb and flow of economic events,” or shifts in public policy.
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.
No constitution can limit the powers it delegates if the definitions of its terms may deviate from their original meanings at the behest of the very persons whose powers are to be limited.
James Madison recognized already in 1824, the Constitution was then undergoing a “metamorphosis” through reinterpretations of its language alien to WE THE PEOPLE’S understanding.
“Why not assume that the framers of the Constitution, and the people who voted it into existence, meant exactly what it says?” Indeed, is not the opposite assumption—that the document might mean something other than what it says—to attribute to its authors either lunacy or fraud?!