12 July 2021

A Failure of Imagination

A little over fifty years ago, an astronaut explained the underlying flaw of originalism. (I apologize for using a "dramatization"; available footage is both almost impossible to hear and almost impossible to find in a way that can display on the 'net, and this dramatization is consistent with the transcript of Col Borman's testimony.) Although he was no legal scholar, Borman's speech demonstrates rather well that the overarching problem with originalism is that it fails of imagination by rejecting the importance of context.

Consider, for a moment, the relationship between "Establishment of Religion" and "Free Exercise of Religion." The Founders' imagination failed. Nowhere in the context of their writings, both in the Constitution itself (more properly, within the third-amendment-that-became-the-First-Amendment) and elsewhere, can one find intelligible consideration of:

  • Non-Abrahamic religion in general, and non-mainline-Christian religion in particular (consider how the Founders of 1785–92 might have understood Joseph Smith… or charismatic Catholicism… or Black Muslims)
  • Religious boycotts, which were almost entirely unlawful in their own experience as colonials… because other religions were almost entirely unlawful in the first place
  • Rejection of religion and faith as anything other than the pecadillos of the socially rejected
  • Women with a central role in religion
  • Pacificism that is not confined to, or by, religion (do not get me started on jus bellum justus, we'll be here for weeks — and that's just as of eighteenth-century European-educated understanding!)
  • Corporal punishment as seemingly required by the Old Testament ("spare the rod")

I don't think most of the Founders were so arrogant that they believed they had thought of every possibility. Ben Franklin certainly wasn't; Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, for all their intellectual certainty, demonstrated the ability to change their minds to the end. (OK, Jefferson probably was that arrogant… but was nonetheless an active inventor himself, so progress in the useful arts and sciences at least seemed possible.) Marshall wisely proclaimed that we always, always, always needed to remember that it was a Constitution we are explaining, which necessarily means that it lacks detail.

And then, if we needed any proof of the Founders' fallibility, we then had a civil war driven by conflicts among different sources of inherited wealth, epitomized by (but not solely restricted to) the three-fifths-of-all-other-persons "problem" — an instance of inherited impoverishment.

The text of a constitution, or a statute, remains important. It is no less than the starting point for our imaginations. But it is no more than that, either, however much the reach of that imagination is restricted by the nature of the text. When the context changes, so does the meaning of the text (consider the "absurd result" canon of interpretation… or the unintended consequences and lacunae of hasty drafting by law professors who are supposed to know better, and thought they did, and screwed up anyway).