A popular idea among many people, in regard to the Constitution of the United States is the idea of “Original Intent.” It is a concept that suggests that our constitution should be strictly followed and narrowly interpreted, that what was written and ratified in 1788 is what should still guide our government today. Historian Joseph Ellis thinks this is a troublesome view given the nature of the Constitution’s adoption and approaches of Madison who greatly influenced the shaping of the constitution.
In my last post, I wrote about the Constitution as a living document, designed with the intent that it would be updated and adjusted through time to meet the needs of citizens at a given point. Ellis, in his book The Quartet, continued with this view of the document and wrote,
“The Constitution was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution. For judicial devotees of “originalism” or “original intent,” this should be a disarming insight, since it made the Constitution the foundation for an ever-shifting political dialogue that, like history itself, was an argument without end. Madison’s “original intention” was to make all “original intentions” infinitely negotiable in the future.”
The Constitution has few hard and fast rules, especially when the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments are not considered. It focuses most thoroughly on the role of Congress and authorities and duties delegated to Congress. The Executive Branch is also fairly well detailed and explained, but the Judicial Branch is hardly developed in the Constitution. Broad language such as “necessary and proper” was written into the Constitution, creating flexibility for Congress. Trying to look back at the Constitution and assume what the founding fathers waned our government and society to look like today is trivial in the eyes of Ellis. The Constitution they wrote encourages debate, argument, and new interpretation. Clinging to ideas of original intent appears counter productive, because the founders never intended for their understanding of the world to lock in specific governance rules for all time. The intent was a document which would define and separate power to allow for deliberation and debate among the branches and among the people to guide the important decisions of the nation.
I also believe that original intent does a disservice to the Constitution and to society by elevating the document and the founding fathers to a quasi-religious level. To assume that original intent is the most appropriate way to understand the Constitution is to assume that the document itself and the men who wrote it were somehow greater than ordinary men and that the written words of the constitution are in some sense sacrosanct and divine. Our founding fathers, the quartet detailed by Ellis in particular, no doubt achieved something remarkable with the writing and adoption of the constitution, but if you study the time and can view history through the lens of those who experienced it, you see that history was shaped by people who made mistakes just as we do today, who were counting on good luck, and who had equally cloudy judgement and foresight as today’s leaders. Just as we would assume that a law written today is not perfect and should not ever be adjusted when the situation calls for it, we should not assume that the Constitution is a document that cannot be re-imagined and re-understood as society and the world change.