What is Originalism? The Evolution of Contemporary Originalist Theory

41 Pages Posted: 2 May 2011

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: April 28, 2011


Debates over “originalism” have been a central focus of contemporary constitutional theory for three decades. One of the features of this debate has been disagreement about what “originalism” is. More worrisome is the possibility that the arguments between contemporary originalists and their opponents, the “living constitutionalists”, are confused – with each side of the debate making erroneous assumptions about the content of their opponent’s theories.

The aim of this chapter is to clarify these debates by providing a history of contemporary originalism and then developing an account of the core or focal content of originalist theory. The history reveals that contemporary originalist theory has evolved – the mainstream of originalist theory began with an emphasis on the original intentions of the framers but has gradually moved to the view that the “original meaning” of the constitution is the “original public meaning” of the text. Even today, originalists disagree among themselves about a variety of important questions, including the normative justification for a constitutional practice that adheres to original meaning. Despite evolution and continued disagreement, however, contemporary originalist theory has a core of agreement on two propositions. First, almost all originalists agree that the linguistic meaning of each constitutional provision was fixed at the time that provision was adopted. Second, originalists agree that our constitutional practice both is (albeit imperfectly) and should be committed to the principle that the original meaning of the Constitution constrains judicial practice.

The question whether living constitutionalists actually disagree with these core principles of originalist theory is a complex one. On one interpretation, living constitutionalism and originalism are (mostly) compatible: the constitution lives inside the “construction zone,” the boundaries of which are marked by the original meaning of the text. On another interpretation, living constitutionalism is incompatible with originalism: living constitutional doctrine and practices can override even original meaning of the text, even when that meaning is clear.

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., What is Originalism? The Evolution of Contemporary Originalist Theory (April 28, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1825543 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1825543

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
(434) 924-7932 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/lbs5w/2846137

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics