Why Our Search for the Constitution’s Original Meaning is So Perplexing

By Jack Rakove

 hough Americans are not an especially patriarchal people, one form of ancestor worship still flourishes: the homage we pay to the wisdom of “the Founding Fathers.” The most notable form of this homage is the belief that in interpreting the Constitution our true goal should be to recover its “original meaning” or the “original intentions” of its adopters. Originalism, as it is called, assumes that a fixed set of meanings was locked into the Constitution at the moment of its adoption, and that these meanings enjoy a supreme legal authority that should guide and constrain the course of interpretation.

Nothing in the Constitution literally directs us to prefer its original meaning over all other modes of interpretation; originalism is always our choice, not a mandate of the past. To its advocates, originalism pro-mises to prevent politically unaccountable judges from imposing their own values and preferences on the text of the Constitution. To its critics, originalism often sounds like a retrograde effort to subordinate pressing claims for present justice or adaptations in governance to flawed and obsolete understandings of the past.

In practice, of course, few originalists really argue that we should turn the clock of government back to 1787 (or the state of race relations back to the 1860s, when Congress proposed the critical Reconstruction amendments). So, too, few critics of originalism would really dismiss evidence of the intentions underlying a particular provision as an irrelevant element in its interpretation. But the weight this evidence should receive remains a source of dispute.

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