It is argued that the United States Constitution is open to interpretation, thus implying that the words on the paper are not an end in themselves. This suggests that the Constitution is flexible and not concrete and indirectly suggests that it needs supporting documentation in order to explain itself. That supporting documentation would be made up of well-defined comments regarding each of the various points and rights laid out in the Constitution. Without such defining tools to consult, we may end up interpreting away our very liberties that the Constitution guaranties. In order prevent such measures, we must examine how we should go about interpreting the Constitution.
At this point, a brief look at interpretation is necessary. There are basically two ways to go about interpreting something. Either you can do it by seeking the truth about what it was originally intended to mean, as created; or, you may go looking for an explanation that fits your viewpoint, in other words, the one that makes you feel best about the subject in question.
First and foremost, interpretation is only necessary when the piece in question has not been explained by those who created it. Stated differently, if the creator of the piece in question told us exactly what it meant, then there would be no need to engage in the art of interpretation. If that author is kind enough to tell you exactly what it means, then there is nothing to discuss after that. But if the creator is unreachable, and did not leave any supporting documentation behind, then interpretation becomes a requirement for understanding.
When you are reviewing a poem or piece of music, or even a painting on the wall, you will most likely never know what the author intended unless you ask him or her directly. With art forms, there is rarely a time when misinterpretation leads to something tragic. Therefore, it does not matter in the case of art whether or not you ever get the chance to question the designer. In fact, part of the enjoyment of art is to come to your own conclusion regarding the piece in question and no harm is done when your wrong.
This liberty is unacceptable when considering more important matters such as the Constitution. If we want to understand it, we would be in error to read it with modern eyes and modern thoughts. If we want to know exactly what the founding fathers intended, then it is required that we read the Federalist Papers and other supporting documents prepared by those who constructed the Constitution. We would be poor scholars not to consult their commentary on the document they helped create. Only by reading their own words can we know exactly what they were saying when they wrote things like “A well regulated Militia…” and “…regulate commerce with foreign nations…” Therefore, documents like the Federalist Papers are as important as the Constitution itself. These secondary documents act like a glossary for the Constitution and must be consulted along side it. Luckily for our understanding of the United States Constitution, we do not have to engage in intellectual jousting to find meaning in it. The founding fathers were kind enough to leave papers and speeches to explain exactly what the words in the Constitution meant.
In order to have unity in the federal government, as well as to ensure the liberties provided by the Constitution, we can not approach the Constitution in the same manner we approach art. We must consult the writings of those that prepared the Constitution and observe their explanations. Only then will we know exactly what they expected of the United States Federal Government. In a letter to William Johnson, Thomas Jefferson remarked, “On every question of construction let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning can be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one that was passed.” (1)
Let us take a look at what happens when the supplemental documentation is not consulted. The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. Modern day gun control advocates claim that this amendment applies only to the modern day National Guard and that it does not apply to individuals when it comes to owning firearms. But when we examine the writings and speeches that were taking place during the debates on the Constitution, we find that this amendment refers to every American citizen who owns personal firearms. It does not apply to a standing army of any kind. It refers to people as individuals. Space does not permit me to quote every possible source but one from Alexander Hamilton says everything necessary. He remarks, “Little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped;…This will not only lessen the call for military establishments; but if circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people, while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their rights and those of their fellow citizens.” (2) Here, Hamilton is clearly calling for the right of each individual citizen to own firearms in case their government attempts to suppress them. But why then did they refer to the Militia and not “the people”? Les Adams, who has examined the documents relating to the issue, informs us that the Militia was the term used to represent all the people, or at least all full citizens of the community. (3) Adams quotes George Mason, a Virginian who refused to sign the Constitution because, at that time, it lacked a Bill of Rights. Mason observed, “Who is the Militia? They consist now of the whole people”. (4) The reason the founders did not say “the people” and said “Militia” is because the people were the Militia, and everyone understood that so no explanation was necessary at the time. This has become confused in modern times because many critics have failed to heed the words of Thomas Jefferson when he said, “…let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted…”
Some may disagree with Jefferson’s argument and complain that if we are always required to go back to the time when the Constitution was created, then this means that the Constitution, along with the United States Government, is unchangeable. They may argue that we will never “move ahead” and they may say that Jefferson’s argument is an egotistical remark concluding that the Constitution is next to godliness in design. Usually, an argument like this comes from those wishing to rewrite or revise government to suit their own needs and desires. The Constitution was created with great care to respect the individual liberties of the people and to restrict the power of government. This must be preserved at all costs and I believe that this was Jefferson’s intention when he said what he did. The Constitution, along with the supporting documentation like the Federalist Papers and other writings by the founding fathers, does not need to be changed. These documents secure our rights and liberties perfect without need for reinterpretation. If we heed and implement their words, we will maintain our liberties and fear not an obtrusive government. Therefore, despite objections, I believe that Jefferson was right when he said what he did about the matter.
Now a time may come, as it did in the past, when the Constitution does need to be revised. Clearly, when the Constitution was created, the horror of slavery was not prohibited. However, in keeping with the spirit of individual liberty, the Constitution was eventually modified.
It may also happen that an entirely new event or situation, which was unforeseeable by the founding fathers, will arise whereby the Constitution and it’s supplemental documents fail to help solve. During the process of reviewing the Constitution and it’s complementary documents, if it is found that the writer’s were in error or mistaken on an issue, or a matter need be added or deleted, then those parts must be re-written through the process of amendment. Although the Constitution is indeed flexible in the sense that it can be changed, it should not be flexible to the point where no one is right and no one is wrong, like in the case of art criticism. By this I mean to say that if there are many interpretations offered to explain a new situation, it is best kept in mind that the best interpretations, will always be those that keep closest to the spirit of the Constitution, to preserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
2 thoughts on “Interpreting the United Stated Constitution”