What it takes to understand the Constitution

Those who claim a few minutes is “all it takes” to understand the Constitution are sadly unaware of the journey they have taken to get to that point. The Constitution is a document written in the legal English of 1787. That is not the same language used in 2010. If you use the legal English of 2010 to read the legal English of 1787 you won’t understand it. You might think you understand it, but that is the position of an undereducated person.

When you try to understand a passage in the Constitution, or any other document, in any language, the process of understanding did not begin when you opened your view of it. It began when you were born and first heard language spoken around you. Your ability to understand it then developed through childhood, then perhaps 12 years of public school, 4 years of college, 3 years of law school, and then 5-6 years of interning with a law firm before the senior partners think you are ready to take a case on your own. So maybe by the age of 30 people might expect you to be able to read a contract, a court opinion, a statute, or a constitution.

So don’t say it only takes someone a few minutes (perhaps with the help of an old dictionary) to understand the Constitution. It took you at least 30 years, even if it seemed like the first few years were slow, at least for legal English.

But that was the legal English of today, not of 1787. That’s a foreign language to us. It might be superficially similar, or even be substantially the same for large parts of it, but there are a lot of words and phrases whose meaning has changed a great deal in 200 years. For a discussion of them see Originalist Issues.

For someone to learn the legal English of 1787, starting at age 30 or more, it should be approached like learning the San language spoken by the tribal !Kung (yes, the exclamation point is not a typo — it stands for a clicking sound made with the tongue) people of Southwest Africa, lovingly depicted in the hilarious movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. It is not just a difference in coding, but a difference in cultures, something one doesn’t get just by reading or writing (the !Kung don’t have a written language). Outsiders who have learned it say it takes at least 15 years to get most of it, and they are still not sure.

I have been studying the Constitution, trying to understand it the way the Founders did, for more than 50 years, and I’m still discovering new meanings in it. Much of that time has been spent trying to explain it to people who don’t even understand their own language, much less the language of the Founders.

Yes, the Constitution has definite meanings that can be discovered, but don’t underestimate the effort that requires. It is an effort well worth making, but it does take a long time.

1 comment:

roguepianotuner said...

Great post!

I'd be happy if people actually would spend some time to read the ENTIRE Constitution, even if they don't understand every nuance of it.

Many of the basic concepts are easy to understand (such as the overall idea that a LIMITED central government was envisioned).

Sadly, today, it seems as if most people believe the federal government was intended to be the answer to every problem.


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