If you read my last blog post, you know I was recently challenged by someone I will call a “strict constructionist” – someone who thinks the US Constitution should always be interpreted the way the original authors of the Constitution intended. The particular argument I was challenged with was that the current president of the United States is not legally our president because he is not a “natural born citizen” of the United States as the framers of the Constitution intended. He was not born in the United States to two US citizens.
When asked if I agreed that “natural born citizen” meant only someone born in the United States to two US citizens, I said no. I have a few different reasons for that. The first is that we have to be very careful with the idea of strict construction because it’s very difficult to know exactly what “the Framers of the Constitution” or the “Founding Fathers” intended.
Oh, you can find books with quotes from George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin talking about the Constitution or its principles. Some people rely on writings by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay, even though they weren’t part of the Constitutional Convention. But no one back then wrote a “full guide to the Constitution through the eyes of the Founders.” Such a thing doesn’t exist, and it would have been very difficult to write.
The Constitutional Convention was made up of 55 men, representing only 12 of the original 13 states. (Rhode Island refused to send delegates to the convention.) After the final draft of the Constitution was prepared, 13 delegates left the convention in protest and 3 more refused to sign it. It is doubtful that any of the 39 men who did sign the Constitution whole-heartedly agreed with every provision in it, as it had only been produced after much debate and many compromises. Benjamin Franklin declared, "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them…. [T]he older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”
Fifty-five men debated the Constitution, 39 signed it, but it took much more debate and many more men to make the Constitution the law of the land. Every state had to consider whether or not to ratify the Constitution, and at least nine of the states had to agree to it – just as it was written – before it would take effect. None of those men could quibble with the phrases used to define and limit the powers of the three branches of government. All they could do was say “yes” or say “no, go back and try again.”
So if I’m asked if a certain phrase in the Constitution should be interpreted the way the it was originally intended, I have to ask, “Intended by whom – the person who first suggested the provision, other Founding Fathers who contributed ideas for the Constitution, the Committee of Detail that drafted the Constitution, the Committee of Style and Arrangement that redrafted it and added final changes, the 39 members of the convention who signed the document, or the hundreds of men making up the state legislatures or ratifying conventions in the 13 states who eventually approved it?” After all, each one of those people was essential to the creation of the document.
“Strict Construction” is a nice idea, but only if we approach the idea cautiously, being careful to not assume that everyone involved in writing and approving of our Constitution actually agreed on what it meant.
Tune in tomorrow for One Last Word on “Natural Born Citizen.”
What is my mission as an author? It's a tough question, but I believe the goal dearest to my heart is to help Christians think about what they really believe and then to act as if they really believe it. It all begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian. Then we have to learn to live like a Christian.