Interpreting the Constitution

>> Friday, July 10, 2009

There are any number of legal and historical professionals that have devoted themselves to interpretation of the Constitution, what it's limits are, what the intents were. I'm not one, so I won't.

But I will say we should be cautious about how we react to the wording and what we ascribe to the intent. The right to bear a flintlock in a world where much of the population has wolves, bears and (justifiably) angry natives outside the door, where people had to surreptiously gather weaponry against an oppressor a couple of decades previously is not the same as having a few Uzis in the hall closet and Howitzer on the front lawn. There's no sense predicting what the founding fathers would have said; I doubt such a future complete with C4 and drive-by shootings were ever envisioned by our founding fathers.

That the Constitution has stood up so well with only a handful of amendments is praise indeed. That it foresaw the potential failings of a government with checks and balances was notable (but hardly ground-breaking).

But the matter of armament is not the only way the world has changed and we should be careful when we put absolute faith in the predictive powers of those same forefathers. Take for instance the matter of state's rights (for those of you who think this was settled in 1865, believe me, there are many still out there).

There can be no doubt, looking historically, that this country was originally forged by thirteen separate and disparate colonies who intended not to lose their individuality while banding together. They insisted on final say before the agreement was changed and reserved to themselves those rights they had not provided the federal government.

Many think we've moved too far in allowing the federal government power, given this clear intent. I do not. Why?

Because this isn't the same world that forged that original agreement. In that world, they were all but different countries, different banks and currency, different industries, different backgrounds. They were largely focused on their own business, their own news, their own little worlds. Travel from one state to the next might take days. Communication was very limited. The wonder wasn't the original focus on states, but rather that the farseeing notions like a US Postal Service were implemented.

In today's world, states are completely different beasties. Life in Virginia isn't notably different than it is in New York, with the differences between rural and urban locales (of the same state) more pronounced than state to state. In larger states, the differences in climate and environment vary more than it does through most of the original thirteen colonies (like, say, Texas). Communication is instantaneous not just within the country but all over the world. Depending on the size of the state, one could drive through half a dozen in one day and one can fly from anywhere in the country to anywhere else easily in one day.

People are far less likely to be born and die in the same locale than they were then. Then, having a state deal with education and health and crime made sense. Now criminals can cut a swathe through many states and children of mobile parents might get spotty educations vastly different from one area to the next.

And many federal agencies were not specifically sanctioned by the Constitution, but truthfully couldn't be done any other way: FAA, NASA, NOAA... We're a world now in borders mean less and less.

And we have a choice, I think, to keep building on the strengths of the foundation, using the model they gave us as an inspiration but not a boundary, or to limit ourselves to an outlook that was remarkable in a much smaller world but is dated and restrictive in a world like ours.

In my opinion.


  • Roy

    Also keep in mind that Jefferson thought the constitution should be rewritten and the government re-formed every 20 years or so, to remain flexible and keep up with the changing times. Unfortunately we humans seem to prefer our rules and governance to be carved in stone for all eternity.

  • Stephanie B

    That's an excellent point, Roy, though Jefferson wasn't entirely thrilled with the Constitution in the first place, if I remember correctly.

  • The Mother

    Humans by nature stick to what they know and are loath to make changes. We even see it in science--Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" makes that point abundantly clear.

  • Stephanie B

    Change frightens people. I was amazed in the technical fields (where you'd think change would be embraced), how intractable institutions and engineers often were when it came to change.

    That aspect hasn't really changed, but I'm no longer surprised.

  • Aron Sora

    Technically, aren't we suppose to update that thing a lot. The founding father didn't fear change because they let us change, why shouldn't we use that ability and change. But, the constitution, once again, conveys the spirit of the nation.

    The issue, I think, is when reading the constitution shuts down common sense, we have a problem. In fact, after watching this

    I think the constitution is hurting use. It should convey a vision for the nation, but strict rules.

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