The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Interpreter's Dilemma: An Essay on Historical and Iconic Meaning
24 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2015
Date Written: June 25, 2015
The Declaration of Independence is one of the paradigm texts in American history. It was originally written for a time-specific purpose. But it also has spoken to a broader audience across time, as an icon representing American ideals. After describing how the Declaration has been given both historical and iconic meaning by judges, presidents, and public figures, this Essay considers the relevance of these two forms of meaning to current debates over constitutional interpretation. Originalists generally privilege the historical meaning of texts.
Yet originalist Justices on the Court have acknowledged that iconic meaning also exists and can sometimes be more relevant. In Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460 (2009), these originalist Justices turned to iconic meaning over historical meaning, endorsing dynamic interpretation of monuments -- even those containing texts. Ironically, then, they found fluidity in the meaning of texts that are literally carved in stone.
The Essay closes with a discussion of the interpreter’s dilemma: the tension between fidelity to the past (served by historical meaning) and affirmation in the present (served by iconic meaning).
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