The Declaration & Constitution: Original Public Meaning [No. 86]
Articles,  Blog

The Declaration & Constitution: Original Public Meaning [No. 86]


So my view of the relationship between the
Declaration and the Constitution is that the Declaration of Independence is one source
of the Constitution’s text’s original meaning, and the way an originalist approaches interpreting
the Constitution is really a multi-step process and, and here I’m thinking of what’s called
“public meaning originalism,” which is the most prominent form of originalism currently. From the public meaning originalist perspective,
the goal of constitutional interpretation is to identify the public meaning of the text
when it was ratified, and there are three basic steps to that process. So the first step is that the original scholar
will look at the conventional meaning of the text when it was ratified, and the conventional
meaning of a text is the meaning of that text that average speakers of that language would
use. And so for example, if we were looking for
the word commerce in the commerce clause in 1787, we would look to see how is the word
commerce used by average Americans at that time period. The second step that an originalist would
use in interpreting the Constitution would be to look at the semantic meaning of that
text in the Constitution. The semantic meaning takes that conventional
meaning that was previously identified and puts it in its location in the Constitution,
and then with the rules of grammar, punctuation, and syntax, identifies what changes to the
conventional meaning do those rules, if any, include. And so for example, the word commerce isn’t
just a word standing alone in the Constitution, it’s part of a larger clause. It’s part of itself, the interstate commerce
clause, which in turn is a part of both the foreign commerce clause and the Indian commerce
clause, and then that clause in Article I Section 8 Clause 3 is itself part of Article
I Section 8, which is a series of grants of power to Congress. And so the semantic meaning is the modified
meaning of the conventional meaning. And then the third step in originalist interpretation
is called contextual enrichment. So the word commerce doesn’t appear in isolation. It didn’t drop from the heavens. Instead, the word commerce appeared in 1787
and, for example, one of the important pieces of contextual information at that time was
the Articles of Confederation, our first full constitution, didn’t have a commerce clause,
and it was a dismal failure in part because of that. And so that context gives input into what
was the contextually enriched, semantic, conventional meaning of the word commerce? And when you look at the originalist approach
to constitutional interpretation, none of those steps privileges the Declaration of
Independence. Now, the Declaration of Independence could
be an input into, for example, the first and third steps, the identification of the conventional
meaning of the text or the identification of the context of that text, but neither of
those steps, uh, privileges the Declaration in a unique way.

2 Comments

  • Bob Beckel

    When I look at the Declaration of Independence I see a philosophical argument. I suspect the Founding Fathers agreed
    the government they wanted to form would have to role in philosophy or morality. Therefore, they created a separate
    document to answer the philosophical underpinnings of what they were attempting to achieve. After watching several
    YouTube videos, I am still at a complete loss as to what the Federalist Society is intended to achieve. Legalize morass.

  • ShooK on3

    Any review of the documents surrounding the Ratification would reveal a highly contentious debate over the meaning of the Constitution’s clauses. Indeed, the parties to that compact, the States, had different views of what the terms meant. This method of construction therefore creates more heat than light. Ultimately, insofar as no Council was included in the Constitution, as Madison proposed, a judge will be the final arbiter of the meaning, and whether under the guise of historical analysis or not, a judge says what the terms mean and effectively operates as a Framer himself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *