The United States Constitution was ratified in 1788. The document was meant to be used as detailed instructions for the country’s operations. It lists the duties of the various offices and the limitations on what the government can do. The Bill of Rights, which was ratified in 1791, listed specific rights given to the people, and later amendments continued to build upon it (Munson). This document was written over the course of years; a document that has had so much influence on our nation and is supposed to be the “Supreme law of the land” should be treasured by American citizens (Jefferson). When it comes to the Constitution, there are two leading views on how it should be interpreted, original intent and the living Constitution.
The view held by most conservatives is the “original intent” interpretation. This view embraces the belief that the correct way to interpret the Constitution is to read it through the eyes of the Founding Fathers. Only by understanding why the words were written can they be adapted to modern day meaning. The Founding Fathers spent countless hours debating and thinking about what to put in the Constitution. Years of oppression by King George III had built up a passion inside of them for justice. The War for Independence lasted eight years and cost over 4,000 lives; the words they wrote should not be taken lightly. What is written in the document is a direct result from the injustices they had faced. They suffered massacres, rigged trials, and unwarranted searches and seizures (Jefferson). The Founders put numerous safeguards in the Constitution to make sure that the government would not be able to gain complete power. By understanding Founders’ reasoning, we can understand how to apply their ideas and beliefs to our government today.
There is little question that the Constitution can be currently applied; it is to “what extent” where the questions and disagreements begin to arise. For example, the 4th Amendment states that citizens have the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects…” (Jefferson). By adapting this Amendment to modern day meaning by using original intent, there is no question that this applies to cell phones and computers. The basis for this Amendment was for people to keep their belongings and documents private; by extending that right to people’s computers and cell phones, we still fulfill the meaning intended by the Founding Fathers.
If citizens of the United States do not have a basic understanding of the historic background or biographic knowledge of the writers of the Constitution, they are far more likely to misinterpret the meaning of important statements and rights that are given. For example, the 9th Amendment states that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” (Jefferson). This means that there are other rights not listed in the Constitution that the people of the United States have. There is much debate over these unnamed rights. Looking at the context of the Bill of Rights, the 9th Amendment is followed immediately by the 10th which states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” (Jefferson). By researching and studying the Constitution, it becomes clear that these two amendments are meant to go together. The 9th Amendment states that there are rights not listed; the 10th Amendment states that it’s up to the states to decide what those rights are. If only the 9th Amendment is read, then anything is available to become a “right” just because the Federal government says so; when it should be up to the states and the people to decide what they are and are not. It is from the ignorance of the general population and many of its leaders that the Federal government has been able to usurp power from the states. If this is allowed to continue, it is only a matter of time before the Federal government has the same power that King George III had in 1775.
One of the most common arguments against using original intent to interpret the Constitution is the claim that the Constitution must “evolve” with the times. This interpretation is most commonly referred to as the “living Constitution”. This view holds to the belief that the Constitution is a “living” document that changes with the times. This position is held by many members of the Democratic Party including four Supreme Court Justices. Proponents of this view suggest that limiting the Constitution to what the Founders intended makes it worthless. They make the argument that using original intent also means that you must limit the meaning to the resources that were available at the time of the writing. They argue that by holding to the original meaning, the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms would only apply to muskets and other weapons that were in use at the time of the writing. There is no basis for this attack; it is simply an attempt to rationalize their viewpoint. By having knowledge of the historic background of the document and understanding the meaning of the words, it becomes obvious that there is only one way to correctly interpret the Constitution.
The belief that the Constitution’s meaning can be altered with the ever-changing morals of the times causes many more issues than it solves. If the “Supreme law of the land” is subjected to the interpretation that its meaning can change, why even have it? If we interpret the Constitution to mean whatever we want, what purpose does the Constitution serve? Thomas Jefferson attacked this viewpoint, saying “The Constitution, on this hypothesis, is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they may please” (“US Constitution…”). The only way the Constitution can be of any use is if its meaning never changes. If the democratic republic of the United States is to endure, the document that holds it accountable must be above the changing ideals of man. In order to have a lawful and orderly nation there must be a timeless standard. “A Bill of Rights that means what the majority wants it to mean is worthless,” said the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Alexander). The “Living Constitution” interpretation is simply a way for the Judiciary branch to side-step the correct view of the Constitution and to implement their own ideas into the political system. American citizens who are ignorant of the meaning of the Constitution are vulnerable to being misled into following and electing officials who are not instituting the Constitution correctly.
Understanding the Constitution is one of the most important things an American citizen can do. It is so important that people understand the document that gives them their rights, that if they cannot understand it on their own they should seek out help. As James Madison said, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood;” (Madison). By having an enlightened citizenry, the United States will not only operate efficiently, but it will also operate Constitutionally.
Alexander, Mark, Better Obstruction than Destruction. The Patriot Post, 17 Feb. 2016, www.patriotpost.us/alexander/40740. Accessed 6 October 2016.
Jefferson, Thomas, The Declaration of Independence. The National Archives,
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html. Accessed 8 Oct. 2016
Jefferson, Thomas, Text of the Constitution of the United States. Trident Technical College, pub. 4 March. 1789, www,ttc-mt-iii.com. Accessed 8 October 2016.
What the Founding Fathers said about the Second Amendment. Liberty
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Madison, James, The Federalist Papers. Trident Technical College, pub 27 Feb. 1788.
www.ttc-mt.iii.com/iii/encore/record/C__Rb1064737__Sthe%20federalist%20papers__Orightresult__U__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold. Accessed 9 Oct. 2016
Munson, Holly, Basic Facts about the Bill of Rights. National Constitution Center, 22 May 2013, www. blog.constitutioncenter.org/2013/05/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-the-bill-of-rights/. Accessed 6 October 2016.
The US Constitution: ‘A Mere Thing of Wax’. Tea Party Tribune, 17 January. 2013,
www.teapartytribune.com/2013/01/17/the-u-s-constitution-a-mere-thing-of-wax/. Accessed 9 Oct. 2016