Expounding the Constitution
83 Pages Posted: 11 Nov 2020
Date Written: October 30, 2020
Judges and statesmen of the early Republic had heated exchanges over the importance of hewing to the text in constitutional interpretation, and they advanced dueling interpretive prescriptions. That is why contemporary theorists of all persuasions can find support for their positions in the Founding era. But no side of the Founders’ debate over constitutional interpretation maps perfectly onto a modern school of thought. Modern scholarship has misunderstood the terms of the Founders’ debate because it sits on an unfamiliar axis. Instead of arguing over whether the Constitution was, for instance, living or static, this Article demonstrates that early American lawyers debated whether the Constitution should be interpreted according to the methodologies applicable to public or private legislation.
This distinction among different types of legislation has faded from view because modern legislatures almost never pass private laws—statutes that apply only to one person, group, or corporation. But in early America, private legislation was the majority of legislatures’ business. Generally applicable laws, like those Congress busies itself with today, were the minority. What’s more, American courts had fixed, predictable, and familiar rules of interpretation for each type of law. Private acts received stricter, more text-orientated interpretations while public acts were interpreted broadly and pragmatically to effectuate their purposes, taking into account new circumstances that the drafters may not have foreseen.
After ratification, critical policy differences emerged among American statesmen in the first Congress. Hamilton and Madison, once united as authors of the Federalist Papers, found themselves on different sides. Both insisted that the Constitution must be interpreted to vindicate their views, and in the process, they opened a debate about interpretation that would characterize the nation’s constitutional jurisprudence until the 1820s. The Federal Constitution was a novelty. But lawyers don’t tend to make new rules to suit new situations; we prefer to rely on precedent. And that is what these lawyers did, using legal tools devised for interpreting legislation—a form of written law with consistent interpretive rules that were part of the bread-and-butter practice of every American lawyer.
We cannot understand the major cases of the Marshall Court, including Marbury, Martin, and McCulloch without this context. In these cases, litigants argued over, and the Court wrestled with, whether public or private legislation provided the best analogy for the Federal Constitution. The answer dictated whether restrictive or pragmatic rules would govern its interpretation. The terms of these arguments would have been obvious to the legal thinkers of that generation. Yet, in spite of all the attention we have lavished on Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Story, and their world, this central dynamic of their legal culture has remained unexplored.
This Article argues that, during framing and ratification, many of the Founders thought the Constitution would be interpreted according to the rules applicable to public legislation, although statesmen like Jefferson and Madison later took a different view. Chief Justice Marshall’s enduring commitment to the public-act analogy explains his embrace of “implied powers” in McCulloch and underpins the broad, nationalist vision in his other major decisions. These insights are not only critical to understanding those decisions on their own terms, they are also highly relevant to modern constitutional theorists who rely on early American precedent. If the Founders intended that the Constitution would be interpreted according to the rules of public legislation, then the “original” Constitution is a flexible and pragmatic charter, not a fixed and immutable artifact.
Keywords: legal history, statutory interpretation, legislation, jurisprudence, constitutional interpretation, American history, John Marshall
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