We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
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The Meaning of the Constitution
The Constitution of the United States has endured for over two centuries. It remains the object of reverence for nearly all Americans and an object of admiration by peoples around the world. William Gladstone was right in 1878 when he described the U.S. Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
Part of the reason for the Constitution’s enduring strength is that it is the complement of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration provided the philosophical basis for a government that exercises legitimate power by “the consent of the governed,” and it defined the conditions of a free people, whose rights and liberty are derived from their Creator. The Constitution delineated the structure of government and the rules for its operation, consistent with the creed of human liberty proclaimed in the Declaration….
The Formation of the Constitution
The creation of the United States Constitution—John Adams described the Constitutional Convention as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen”—was a seminal event in the history of human liberty. The story of that creation in the summer of 1787 is itself a significant aspect in determining the meaning of the document.
In June 1776, amid growing sentiment for American independence and after hostilities with the British army had commenced at Lexington, Massachusetts, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress for the colonies to collectively dissolve political connections with Great Britain, pursue foreign alliances, and draft a plan of confederation. These actions resulted in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Franco-American Alliance of 1778, and the Articles of Confederation, which were proposed in 1777 and ratified in 1781.
From its conception, the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation made it awkward at best and unworkable at worst. Each state governed itself through elected representatives, and the state representatives in turn elected a weak national government. There was no independent executive, and the Congress lacked authority to impose taxes to cover national expenses. Because all thirteen colonies had to ratify amendments, one state’s refusal prevented structural reform; nine of thirteen states had to approve important legislation, which meant five states could thwart any major proposal. And although the Congress could negotiate treaties with foreign powers, all treaties had to be ratified by the states….
The Originalist Perspective
Written constitutionalism implies that those who make, interpret, and enforce the law ought to be guided by the meaning of the United States Constitution—the supreme law of the land—as it was originally written. This view came to be seriously eroded over the course of the last century with the rise of the theory of the Constitution as a “living document” with no fixed meaning, subject to changing interpretations according to the spirit of the times.
In 1985, Attorney General Edwin Meese III delivered a series of speeches challenging the then-dominant view of constitutional jurisprudence and calling for judges to embrace a “jurisprudence of original intention.” There ensued a vigorous debate in the academy, as well as in the popular press, and in Congress itself over the prospect of an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. Some critics found the idea too vague to be pinned down; others believed that it was impossible to find the original intent that lay behind the text of the Constitution. Some rejected originalism in principle, as undemocratic (though it is clear that the Constitution was built upon republican rather than democratic principles), unfairly binding the present to the choices of the past…