Against an Originalist Reading of the Constitution

The US Constitution is a complex document that can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Legal scholars have long debated the “proper” way to interpret the Constitution’s text. Should we, as a nation, attempt to follow the Constitution as it was originally intended to be followed, or should we allow ourselves a sense of historical hindsight and interpret it as we see fit?  Originalists, like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, would argue that the Constitution is fixed and should be interpreted as written. In a 2013 interview, he explained that,  “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change”. 

While the meaning of a word may not change, who that word is applied to can, and has, changed over time. As our society evolves to recognize the rights of minorities, women, and members of the LGBT community, the way in which we interpret the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, must also evolve and grow with us.The flaw in Scalia’s thinking and originalism at large is that it ignores the importance of our perception in interpreting democratic ideas. The text of the Constitution is important, but what is equally important is our current understanding of key ideas, like freedom and justice. We assign meaning to the Constitution through the ways in which we live out its principles, and much has changed about our way of life since the Constitution’s ratification.

If we were to interpret the Constitution strictly as it was written, we would unavoidably adopt the shortsightedness of 1780s America, pushing aside the intellectual progress of the past 200 years. In no other discipline would we employ this approach. In mathematics, science, and even the social sciences, we study theories from the past while constantly advancing them with a top down approach, using all of the collected knowledge that we possess.  It is crucial that how we perceive the founders’ words changes over time, because, fundamentally, our dominant thought is changing and expanding, particularly in regard to the viewpoints and perspectives of underprivileged groups. To interpret for original intent is to interpret only for a narrow and majoritarian view.

All things- documents, people, and even places- must be understood in their historical context. Everything that happens occurs within the construct of time, and we must be able to critically evaluate things from the past using what we know now. The originalist interpretation too easily dismisses modern thought as a fleeting public opinion that will soon change, when in fact our current social perspective is our most advanced and wise.

Underlying the flawed originalism approach, there is an unfortunate American dogma that all of our best democratic ideas originated with the Constitution and the founding fathers. While these laudable men may have penned our sacred principles, we as a society continually must strive to fully reach those ideas. We are constantly having to rethink what it means to be fair, what it means to be just, what it means to have equal representation, and what it means to have liberties. Certain rights may be written on paper, but our interpretation of them, and who actually gets to have them, changes in significant ways. While the Constitution is the blueprint and foundation of American democracy, it is not the master plan. The master plan is constantly being rewritten through our enhanced and improved achievement of the democratic principles put forth by the Constitution.

In that spirit, it is important to remember the journey of American democracy did not end in 1789. The danger of originalism is in accepting the belief that the founding fathers created a document perfect enough to be static throughout time- to be understood only through their select few words. The Constitution actually must live and grow with society as a document in order to maintain meaning.