by Raoul Berger

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt of the book Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Foreword by Forrest McDonald (2nd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997).

Current indifference to the “original intention” — shorthand for the meaning attached by the Framers to the words they employed in the Constitution and its Amendments—is a relatively recent phenomenon. Those who would adhere to it are scornfully charged with “filio-pietism,” “verbal archeology,” “antiquarian historicism that would freeze [the] original meaning” of the Constitution.

We are told that the Framers intended to leave it “to succeeding generations [meaning judges] . . . to rewrite the ‘living’ constitution anew,”  an argument opposed to historical fact. The sole and exclusive vehicle of change the Framers provided was the amendment process; judicial discretion and policymaking were in high disfavor; all “agents and servants of the people” were to be “bound by the chains” of a “fixed Constitution.” Certainly Justice Story did not regard himself as holding a commission “to rewrite the ‘living’ constitution anew”:

Nor should it ever be lost sight of that the government of the United States is one of limited and enumerated powers; and that a departure from the true import and sense of its powers is pro tanto, the establishment of a new Constitution. It is doing for the people, what they have not chosen to do for themselves. It is usurping the functions of a legislator.

Why is the “original intention” so important? The answer was long since given by Madison: if “the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the Nation . . . be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable government, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.”

A judicial power to revise the Constitution transforms the bulwark of our liberties into a parchment barrier. This it was that caused Jefferson to say, “Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” Given a system founded on a dread of power, with “limits” to fence it about, those who demand compliance with those limits (pursuant to the counsel of four or five early State constitutions) are not to be charged with invoking the shades of the Framers in order to satisfy “the need for certainty . . . If we pretend that the framers had a special sort of wisdom, then perhaps we do not have to think too hard about how to solve pressing social problems.”  The issue rather is whether solution of those “pressing social problems” was confided to the judiciary.

Effectuation of the draftsman’s intention is a long-standing rule of interpretation in the construction of all documents—wills, contracts, statutes—and although today such rules are downgraded as “mechanical” aids, they played a vastly more important role for the Founders. Hamilton, it will be recalled, averred: “To avoid arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound down by strict rules and precedents, which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.”

That Hamilton was constrained thus to reassure the ratifiers testifies to prevailing distrust of unbounded judicial interpretive discretion. Some fifty years later, Justice Joseph Story, perhaps the greatest scholar who sat on the Supreme Court, emphasized that such rules provided a “fixed standard” for interpretation, without which a “fixed Constitution” would be forever unfixed. The Constitution, in short, was written against a background of interpretive presuppositions that assured the Framers their design would be effectuated.

The rules governing “intention” reach far back in legal history; but for our purposes it suffices that English case-law emphasis on effectuation of the “original intention” was summarized in Bacon’sAbridgment (1736) and restated in 1756 by Thomas Rutherforth, in a “work well known to the colonists.” Rutherforth assimilated the interpretation of statutes to that of contracts and wills and stated that “The end, which interpretation aims at, is to find out what was the intention of the writer, to clear up the meaning of his words.”

And he concluded that “the intention of the legislator is the natural measure of the extent of the law.” The influence of these presuppositions on the Founders is no matter of conjecture. On the heels of the Convention, Justice James Wilson, a leading participant, said: “The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.”

Not long thereafter Jefferson pledged as President to administer the Constitution “according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people at the time of its adoption—a meaning to be found in the explanations of those who advocated . . . it.” That view was echoed by Chief Justice Marshall, himself a participant in the Virginia Ratification Convention: if a word “was so understood . . . when the Constitution was framed . . . [t]he convention must have used it in that sense.”  It was reaffirmed by Justice Holmes: an amendment should be read in a “sense most obvious to the common understanding at the time of its adoption.”

Enchanted by judicial fulfillment of libertarian hopes, academe, on one ground or another, has endeavored to discredit “original intention,” to rid us of the “dead hand of the past.” But neither has openly been repudiated by the Court. To the contrary, it has been the Court’s practice over the years to consult the intention of the Framers; the Court’s concern, as Louis Pollak remarked, “for the original intent of the framers of the Constitution remains high.”

An arresting example is furnished by the exchange between two “activists,” Justices Black and Goldberg, aligned on opposing sides. To Black’s condemnation of judicial “amendment,” Goldberg responded: “Of course our constitutional duty is to construe, not to rewrite or amend the Constitution! . . . Our sworn duty to construe the Constitution requires, however, that we read it to effectuate the intent and the purposes of the Framers.” So, too, both Justices Black and Frankfurter, on opposite sides of the fence in Adamson v. California, invoked the original intention.

To impeach the “original intention,” academicians sought to discredit resort to “legislative history” in general on the ground that the records are incomplete, that they are inconclusive because strewn with conflicting claims. Such charges are irrelevant to the records of the 39th Congress, a “complete” verbatim record of the entire debates. Insofar as there were conflicting opinions, the views of racist Democrats who sought to kill both the Civil Rights Bill and the Fourteenth Amendment carry no weight; those of a handful of radical dissentients for whom neither Bill nor Amendment went far enough are overborne by the will of the great Republican majority—for example, to leave control of suffrage to the States. That will is implicitly stated in the §2 curtailment of representation when a State denies or abridges suffrage—recognition of power to do so; it is unequivocally confirmed by the Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, by those in charge of the Bill and the Amendment, and by many others in the course of the debates. On a centuries-old canon of interpretation, that intention is as good written into the text. When a legislature “has intimated its will, however indirectly,” Justice Holmes held, “that will should be recognized and obeyed . . . it is not an adequate discharge of duty for courts to say: ‘We see what you are driving at, but you have not said it.’ ” The intention of the sovereign people, whether expressed in convention or through the amendment process, demands even greater obedience.

Another attempt to dissolve traditional bonds was by way of semantics. To demonstrate that “only present current meanings are pertinent,” Charles Curtis delivered himself of a “profound discourse on the meaning of meaning,”  liberally sprinkled with Aristotelian essences and linguistics.

But four years earlier, in an article giving some sage counsel to draftsmen, Curtis advised, “What the author of a legal document is trying to control is the future . . . to control this person’s conduct in the future” —more graphically expressed in Jefferson’s “bind him down . . . by the chains of the Constitution.” If that be the purpose of drafting, as seems indisputable, it is aborted by a theory that leaves another person free to read his own meaning into the draftsman’s words. Commenting on Curtis’ “meaning of meaning,” Willard Hurst matter-of-factly pierced to the heart of the matter: “When you are talking about constitutional law, you are talking about the balance of power in the community and the question of how you find meaning boils down concretely here to who finds the meaning.” May the Justices supplant the value-choices of the Framers with their own? An officeholder like Santarelli appreciated such realistic implications.

If the Court may substitute its own meaning for that of the Framers it may, as Story cautioned, rewrite the Constitution without limit. But, Leonard Levy maintains: “Whatever the framers of the Fourteenth intended, there is no reason to believe that they possessed the best insights or ultimate wisdom as to the meaning of their words for subsequent generations . . . Words do not have fixed meanings. As Justice Holmes once remarked, a word is ‘the skin of living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.’ ”

Of course, were Holmes drafting he would use words in their present meaning, but that is a far cry from the view that he would feel free to substitute his own meaning in a subsisting document for that of bygone draftsmen. As we have seen, he felt bound to give effect to the intention of the legislators, and it will hereafter appear that he held that words must be given the meaning they had at the time they were set down. There is, moreover, a serious flaw in the Levy analysis, which appears more plainly in John Wofford’s statement that if “the meaning of a word is its use, and if its use can never be found apart from its context, then we need only add that an inseparable constituent of context is the time at which the use occurs to show that a past meaning can not bind the present.”

Now one who reads what another has written or seeks to interpret it does not in common usage really “use” the word. It is the writer who “used” it, and the traditional function of interpretation, as Rutherforth stated above 200 years ago, is to ascertain “what was the intention of the writer?”  On the Levy-Wofford analysis we are free to read Hamlet’s statement that he “can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” then meaning a heron, as if he referred to our pointed-tooth cutting tool because the meaning of “handsaw” has changed, reducing Shakespeare to nonsense.

Even Humpty-Dumpty did not carry it so far as to insist that when Alice “used” a word he could dictate what she meant. With Willard Hurst, I would underscore that “if the idea of a document of superior authority” —the “fixed Constitution” to which the Founders were attached— “is to have meaning, terms which have a precise history filled content to those who draft and adopt the document [such as “due process” ] or to which they attach a clear meaning [such as “equal protection” ] must be held to that precise meaning.” To hold otherwise is to convert the “chains of the Constitution” to ropes of sand.

Like the Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment was written against the Bacon-Rutherforth background, clearly restated in 1860. Even Charles Sumner, archradical of the 39th Congress, was well aware that Every Constitution embodies the principles of its framers. It is a transcript of their minds. If its meaning in any place is open to doubt, or if words are used which seem to have no fixed signification, we cannot err if we turn to the framers; and their authority increases in proportion to the evidence which they left on the question.

A “transcript of their minds” was left by the framers in the debates of the 39th Congress, and they left abundant evidence that, for example, in employing “equal protection of the laws” they had in mind only a ban on discrimination with respect to a limited category of “enumerated” rights. Disregard of that intention starkly poses the issue whether the Court may “interpret” black to mean white, to convert the framers’ intention to leave suffrage to the States into a transfer of such control to the Supreme Court.

The 10th Amendment

“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.”



Featured Articles

On the Constitution, history, the founders, and analysis of current events.

featured articles


Tenther Blog and News

Nullification news, quick takes, history, interviews, podcasts and much more.

tenther blog


State of the Nullification Movement

232 pages. History, constitutionality, and application today.

get the report


Path to Liberty

Our flagship podcast. Michael Boldin on the constitution, history, and strategy for liberty today

path to liberty


maharrey minute

The title says it all. Mike Maharrey with a 1 minute take on issues under a 10th Amendment lens. maharrey minute

Tenther Essentials

2-4 minute videos on key Constitutional issues - history, and application today


Join TAC, Support Liberty!

Nothing helps us get the job done more than the financial support of our members, from just $2/month!



The 10th Amendment

History, meaning, and purpose - the "Foundation of the Constitution."

10th Amendment



Get an overview of the principles, background, and application in history - and today.