A Note on Textual Interpretation

Some people think my reading of the Constitution is flawed by my reliance on what the founders said about it, and my use of the older meanings of the words the founders used in writing it. They say that the Constitution should be a “living” document, or that I shouldn’t be so “strict” in my interpretation. This has come up as a criticism of my argument in the recent article on the Second Amendment. I’d like to explain my point of view on this.

On the charge of being “strict”: the Constitution is a set of rules for how the government is supposed to work. As such, it should absolutely be read in a strict sense. The people who claim to be in favor of a more “nuanced” approach to our rights would be the very first ones to cry foul if they were thrown in jail because of their speech, or because of an improperly conducted search. The rules should be the rules. For everyone. The Constitution doesn’t exist to only protect the rights of those who agree with the people who are currently in power. That would be a meaningless protection.

As to the charge of putting undue stock in what the founders thought the words meant: This is the more serious problem, in my eyes. When interpreting and deciding whether a written law is good, should the author’s definitions of words be used, or the definitions decided on by any random future reader? Let’s think about this with an example:

Say you just moved from the U.S. and started working as a desk clerk at a hotel in London. When reading the policy and procedure manual during your first shift, you come across the following line: “It is of vital importance that all hotel guests be knocked-up in the morning by the front desk clerk at the time specified by the guest.” You notice that there is a list at the front desk of all the hotel guests with separate “knock-up” times listed for each. What is this rule asking you to do?

To the Brit who wrote the policy, “knock-up” means that you are supposed to *wake up* each guest on the list. As an American transplant, you would probably reach a totally different conclusion. Your cultural definition of that phrase would lead you to interpret the policy to mean that you are supposed to go and *impregnate* each hotel guest (especially if you’re the type of person who is pre-disposed to want to have sex with strangers – that’s called “confirmation bias”). I mean, apparently, they asked for it when they signed-in, right?

So ask yourself: Which is the right way to interpret this language? Which is the most fair? Which do you think would stand up in court during the eventual sexual assault trial? Should the author’s definitions be followed, or the definitions of whoever happens to read it later on?

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