I recently realized that although I’ve written reviews of books about how the Founding Fathers thought we should learn how to interpret the Constitution, such as The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, and What the Anti-Federalists were For, I haven’t given you my views on how to interpret the Constitution. I’ve given some hints, such as that I think gun control is unconstitutional and red flag laws are unconstitutional, but I haven’t given a holistic perspective on how to interpret the Constitution. Now, with this article, I will.
So, I wrote this article to fix that and to give y’all an idea of how Gen Z conservatives view the Constitution and what we young conservatives think the answer to how to interpret the Constitution is. Furthermore, as conservatives, we should know how to interpret our own founding document because it is what upholds our republican principles and ensures that our natural rights are always protected. Hopefully, this article helps you realize that and gives you a better understanding of how to interpret the Constitution!
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A Conservative View on How to Interpret the Constitution
The Constitution should be interpreted in an Originalist manner because the American system of government is set up in such a way that it only works when the Constitution is interpreted to mean what the Founders intended for it to mean. The Constitution is meant to support and give the guidelines for a republic that prioritizes liberty through the protection of positive rights, which is something that Amy Coney Barrett certainly understands.
If the Constitution is interpreted through an Originalist lens, then it works effectively. It is not effective at giving the guidelines for any form of government other than a republic because the Founders did not intend for the U.S. to be anything other than a republic. Additionally, the Constitution is meant to protect the natural rights of American citizens. It is not meant to be used by the government as a tool to constrain individual liberty.
Furthermore, viewing the Constitution through an originalist lens helps one avoid many of the contradictions and problems that arise when other lenses are used to interpret the Constitution.
For example, while Textualism at first seems similar to Originalism, Textualism is not as comprehensive; it is only usable when the text of the Constitution explicitly states the problem. If it is, then both Originalist and Textualist understandings of the Constitution will likely lead to similar answers. However, if the problem is not referenced in the Constitution, the meanings of the words used have changed over time, or the text is vague, then Textualism is not a useful tool with which you can study and understand the American Constitution.
Doctrinalism is another lens some use to interpret the Constitution. Its weakness is that courts in the past have made mistakes, such as in Plessy v Ferguson. If the Constitution could only be interpreted based on past, incorrect arguments, then it would not be an effective governing document.
Aspirationalism is another unworkable way to view the Constitution. It is an unworkable framework because it has no defined standards other than what activist judges view as “best” at the time. When the text helps show what Aspirationalists want it to, they use the text, but when it doesn’t, they instead based their arguments on opaque and constantly shifting ideas about an ideal society. In my view, that means that if you want to learn how to interpret the Constitution, you should shy away from Aspirationalism.
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That ideology leads to contradictions, double-standards, and is an ineffective way through which to view a governing document like the Constitution. The document is not a living one; it has a specific meaning. So, any attempt to give it a new meaning just because social mores have changed is a horrible and ineffective lens through which to interpret the Constitution.
Originalism, however, avoids most of the aforementioned problems because it is based on both what the Founders wrote and what they intended for their writings to mean. Because there is such a large host of available information that can be used to understand the Founders’ intentions, even problems left unmentioned in the Constitution can be solved through closely examining their correspondence or other writings.
Furthermore, Originalism’s strong connection to history and tradition gives rulings made using Originalism additional credibility. Here’s a hint before the conclusion: start to read more about Originalism if you want to learn how to interpret the Constitution.
Nevertheless, “strict” Originalism is almost as problematic as Aspirationalism or Textualism. That is because that lack of flexibility inherent in “strict” Originalism can lead to situations where looking only at the text and ideas surrounding it with an Originalist view will not lead to the ultimate end goal of the Constitution, which is liberty. As Justice Scalia showed in D.C. v Heller, the ideas surrounding certain amendments are sometimes out of date.
The goal of the Second Amendment is to preserve the right to bear arms; according to it, that right “shall not be infringed.” However, in the Founders’ time, that right was tied in closely with militia membership. As the frontier was closed and the American military shifted away from a citizens’ militia and towards a standing Army and Navy, that militia clause was obsolete because it was being used to constrain liberty rather than forward it.
Justice Scalia recognized that in D.C. v Heller and split the clause into “prefatory” and “operatory” clauses. Through doing so, he ensured that the focus would be placed on the right to bear arms, not militias, which was hot to interpret the Constitution and its amendments correctly, in that case. Although his decision to do that made him a judicial activist in that case, his decision helped preserve the right to bear arms. That was the correct interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, even though it was not an Originalist interpretation.
Finally, one of the main current points of contention over how to interpret the Constitution is over whether it protects equality or individual liberty. An Originalist understanding of the Constitution generally leads to the belief that it protects individual liberty, while an Aspirationalist view leads to the belief that it protects equality. For the American system to work as intended, individual liberty must be protected by the Consitution.
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The rights laid out in the Constitution and its amendments are not rights granted by the government but are rather rights granted by God at birth to everyone; they are natural rights that cannot be taken away from anyone, no matter what the majority wants, because America is not a democracy but a republic. For that reason, the government must protect them.
Protection of those natural rights is the only legitimate purpose of any government, so if the government does not protect those rights, then it is neither fulfilling its duty, nor is it acting legitimately. The guide to how to interpret the Constitution is to examine what ruling would protect the natural rights of citizens the best. The American republican system was set up through the Constitution in recognition of that fact because the Founders knew that liberty and the protection of natural rights are essential for any system to survive.
Totalitarian dictatorships that often focused on “equality,” such as the Soviet Union, have collapsed while America has remained strong. That strength exists because liberty is a tool that allows people to use their minds to innovate and prosper. An Originalist understanding of the Constitution is the correct way to view it because Originalism leads to liberty, and not only is protecting liberty and natural rights a moral imperative, liberty also leads to prosperity and stability. Want to know how to interpret the Constitution? Then study Originalism.
Some of you might not like that “study Originalism” is my answer on how to interpret the Constitution. But, I think that in most cases it is the right one. Any understanding of how to interpret the Constitution requires you to be steeped in what the Founders wrote, why they wrote it in that manner, and what they had in mind when they wrote it. Generally, Originalism is the best way to combine all of that knowledge and make it usable, hence why I think it is the correct answer when I’m asked how to interpret the Constitution.
By: Gen Z Conservative