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The framers of the Constitution didn’t worry about ‘originalism’

Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett introduces her family members during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Barrett says she’s an originalist.

. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Judge Amy Coney Barrett is a self-avowed originalist and textualist. Like most conservative jurists, she praises these modes of constitutional interpretation as effective constraints on judicial discretion. Adherents of these methods hold that they will interpret the Constitution as its original adopters understood it. They will not allow judges to make up new rights, even in response to their personal moral commitments. The text governs all, and those who interpret it must be faithful to the usage of past decades, not contemporary concerns.

So far so good, an impartial observer might say. But debates about originalism and how to perform it have been roiling the legal academy for several decades. Scores and scores of scholarly articles on the subject pour in annually from university law reviews; another baker’s dozen books also address it. And there is no simple way to say how we know what the phrases of the Constitution originally meant.

The framers never worried about its future judicial interpretation, nor would they have thought of themselves as “originalists.” They were, rather, the heirs to rich constitutional debates that began with the imperial quarrel with Britain in the mid-1760s and continued with the writing of new state constitutions in the mid-1770s and the “imbecility,” as the Federalist papers put it, of the national government under the Articles of Confederation. They didn’t consider how their decisions would hold up in court.

At first glance, questions of original intent seem like ideal problems for historians to solve. How can we determine what the Constitution truly meant except by examining why its clauses were proposed and how they were supported or criticized? The Constitution and its amendments were products of political debates; reconstructing those debates is how one would decipher its “original meaning.”

But the main advocates for originalist theory are lawyers, not historians, and they act under different assumptions. Where historians would be content to describe a set of debates reflecting an array of perspectives, legal originalists want to “fix” the meaning of constitutional terms — to come up with the one best answer to the puzzles that jurists have to solve. They assume the words the framers used had settled meanings and that a conscientious reader — an informed public official, a learned jurist or just a responsible citizen — can understand those meanings without knowing anything about the debates that produced the text.

One problem with this idea is that the founding era was a period of intense conceptual change. Some of the key words and terms in our constitutional vocabulary were subject to pounding controversy and reconsideration. One has to engage these debates to understand how Americans were thinking about these issues at the time. For today’s originalists, that complexity is part of the problem. The records of history are often messy, not neat; speakers argue past each other or engage in rhetorical excess; their fears are dated, their expectations of worst consequences exaggerated.