The Declaration of Independence: No Special Role In Constitutional Interpretation
16 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2019
Date Written: 2018
The Declaration of Independence is a beautifully written document; it is a potent symbol of our nation’s birth and founding principles; but it does not and should not play a unique role in constitutional interpretation. Instead, the Declaration is one source, among many, of the Constitution’s original meaning. I make three arguments to support this thesis.
First and theoretically, I argue that mainline originalist theory has no analytical space within it for the Declaration to play a special role in constitutional interpretation. To illustrate this, I describe the most prominent conception of originalism—public meaning originalism. Then, I show that public meaning originalism’s process to ascertain the Constitution’s original meaning treats the Declaration as one source of original meaning, and that its importance as a source therefore depends on the empirical-historical question of whether the original meaning in fact did privilege it.
This leads me to my second main argument, based on history. I make three moves to show that the Declaration did not play a unique interpretive role. First, I describe how the Framers and Ratifiers did not use the Declaration as the unique interpretive key to constitutional interpretation. Second, I show that, because the Declaration was inconsistent with the Constitution’s text, it cannot be the interpretive key to the Constitution. Third, I explain that it was only after the Founding, during times of moral crisis, that Americans in various social movements turned to the Declaration to support their out-of-the-mainstream constitutional interpretations. This phenomenon shows that appeals to the Declaration are motived by a desire for political and social change extrinsic to the Constitution.
Third and jurisprudentially, I show that our current constitutional practice does not recognize the Declaration as playing a unique role in constitutional interpretation. I focus on the Constitution’s text, current legal practice, and Supreme Court practice.
Keywords: originalism, Declaration of Independence
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