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Understanding American Constitutionalism and Originalism

Updated on June 23, 2019
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Felmore Flores is an Administrative Manager at Black Diamond Logistics Solution LLC. Aside from his work, he enjoys philosophical writing.

"We the people." These powerful uniting words form the first phase of the United States Constitution. We the citizens of this nation are the ones who hold the control of our government. Unfortunately, this is a privilege that is often taken for granted. Many people in our world do not have a voice in their government. Instead, they are oppressed. Ignored. And rejected. But our country is different. As citizens of the United States of America, we have the right and the responsibility to control the course of our nation. One important way we can do this is by accurately interpreting the Constitution. We will evaluate two main ways that people interpret this document. Living constitutionalism on the one hand and originalism on the other.

First, though consider the value of interpreting the Constitution correctly. Our founders spent the hot summer of 1787 in careful thought heated debate. And the sincere prayer that resulted in a document they hoped would make a free and viable nation. If we or our elected officials misinterpret the standards that the founders deliberately set up, we could guide our nation down the dangerous path of economic and social harm. Because of this, we have a responsibility to ourselves to our children and to each other to thoughtfully and prayerfully elect leaders who will navigate our country down the road of freedom. Instead. And this freedom is not always an easy blessing to keep. As former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee said “I wish we would all remember that being American is not just about the freedom we have. It is about those who gave it to us.” Our veterans have put their lives on the line for the freedom and opportunities we have in this country. And we can honor their sacrifice by correctly understanding and applying the constitutional principles for which they have courageously fought. With that in mind let us begin by examining living constitutionalism. Under this view, the values of our society continually mold and change the meaning of the Constitution. This ideology only holds the Constitution as the authority if it is interpreted according to modern thought societies values change sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Thus, interpreting this foundational document according to those changes creates an atmosphere in which the federal government believes it can make laws that are actually outside of its constitutional powers to specific parts the Constitution that this method of interpretation disregards is the ninth and the Tenth Amendments.

“the 9th and the 10th Amendments briefly encapsulate the tool for a theory of the Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution is to protect rights that stemmed not from the government but from the people themselves and the powers of the national government are limited to only those delegated to it by the Constitution on behalf of the people.”

The Ninth Amendment states quote “the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This means that even if a right is not explicitly given to the people in the Constitution the people still retain that right. Furthermore, the 10th Amendment states “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.” Essentially then the states or the people have the right to control everything that is not explicitly given to the federal government. Dr. Matthew Spalding who is the executive editor of the book The Heritage Guide to the Constitution explains “the 9th and the 10th Amendments briefly encapsulate the tool for a theory of the Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution is to protect rights that stemmed not from the government but from the people themselves and the powers of the national government are limited to only those delegated to it by the Constitution on behalf of the people.” Thus because of these constitutional restrictions, the Federal Government is forbidden from taking any authority that has not been explicitly given to it no matter what society or some of our leaders say and believe. This is important to recognize because living constitutionalism does the exact opposite by allowing the federal government to expand itself into areas unrelated to its constitutional functions. The other method of interpretation we will examine is called originalism. This view recognizes that the founders made certain rules for the good of our country. And we need to adhere to the original meaning of those rules unless we decide to change or add to them according to the amendment process outlined in Article 5 of the Constitution.

As Thomas Jefferson asserted "on every question of construction carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted. And instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text conform to the probable one in which it was passed." In other words, this founder is telling us that we need to take the laws of the Constitution as they were originally intended. Reading the Constitution according to society's values instead of with an originalist view can destroy America's foundation of freedom. We cannot let this happen. Our founders’ intentions were not to create a government that would fail. Instead as Abraham Lincoln spoke on the battlefield in Gettysburg our nation has been made and fought for "that government of the people by the people. For the people shall not perish from the earth."

To keep our precious nation a place in which the power is in the hands of the people, not the federal government. We need to diligently follow the original meaning of our constitution which was written so that our country could still be intact over two hundred years later. As originalism indicates our nation's Constitution is a wonderful masterpiece of freedom. Besides being a blessing to us this freedom has also back into people from around the world. For example, my grandfather is from Greece. While serving on a ship in the Greek navy. He met my grandmother. After writing to each other for a year. They were engaged and then married. They started their lives together in Greece but in 1971 my grandfather decided to move his family to America. Because he knew that they would have more freedom and opportunities here. He taught himself how to work with computers and found a job to support his family. This story and my family reflect the story like so many others maybe even your own. Our country has been a beacon of freedom hope and opportunity throughout the generations and this has all been possible because of our Constitution. Years of hard work and deliberation went into producing this document. The land was acquired with our victory in the American Revolution.

Then the founders debated searching for just the right words to form a document capable of housing a nation of freedom. As the process continued. The Constitution was polished and finalized. The ink dried as the signatures were added in September of 1787 and the final touch of ratification came in May of 1790. We do not want to destroy this remarkable document by removing the foundational stones that were laid for our benefit. Instead, we must preserve these foundations by correctly understanding what the founders wrote. Edwin Meese the third who served under Ronald Reagan as a seventy-fifth attorney general of the United States paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the government the founders intended. He writes "The people are self-governing in their community’s religions and social institutions and the government may intrude. Only with the people's consent. They exist between the people and limited government a vast social space. In which men and women in their individual and corporate capacities may exercise their self-governing liberty." That is an excellent picture of three Freedom. They're examining living constitutionalism and originalism as methods of interpretation. We have seen that originalism better protects the integrity of the Constitution because this has implications not only for ourselves and our children but also for the world. It is essential to our lives as American citizens that we accurately interpret this document. As the first chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States John Jay stated “every member I diligently to read and study the constitution of his country by knowing their rights they will sooner proceed when they are violated and be the better prepared to defend and assert them.”

So, I strongly urge you to read the Constitution. Learn what it truly says. Understand why countless men and women have laid down their lives for the preservation of our country. Insist that the people we elect into office are people who treasure America as she is meant to be. This is our nation and it's Francis Scott Key so eloquently wrote in The Star-Spangled Banner. We are and should strive to remain to quote the land of the free and the home. Of the brave.”

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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      9 months ago

      Felmore L Flores

      A very well written piece on a part of the constitution.

      Unfortunately, the constitution is what the SCOTUS says it is and for a long time the SCOTUS has made political decisions over constitutional decisions.

      Second thy have misinterpreted the Interstate Commerce Clause to allow everything thing to become a Federal Issue making the Supremacy Clause over power the 10th Amendment.

      They also made the 14th Amendment more powerful than it was intended.

      The 14th by today SCOTUS decisions would given the same rights and protection from the 15th Amendment and the 19th Amendment.

      The 13th, 15th and 19th amendment oppose the notion of "All Men are Created Equal', and I submit that they were really talking about Males, and not mankind.

      Just a thought.

    • felmoreflores profile imageAUTHOR

      Felmore L Flores 

      9 months ago from Fair Oak, Washington USA

      Thank you. This is something the government of today needs to understand.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      9 months ago from Florida

      Very true, America was created by those trying to escape an oppressive government and taxation. They wanted as little government oversight as possible.

      Today the country is clearly divided amongst those who want to remain as free and self-sufficient as possible, and those wanting the government to provide and control almost every aspect of life.

      The difference is as simple as those who take control and responsibility for their lives versus those who want everything spoon fed to them, and to be cared for and protected...some would rather have a little bit guaranteed to them, than the risk of losing it all, even if with that risk comes the opportunity to achieve far more.


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