The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published January 20 by Grand Junction Free Press.
As Americans we live under the greatest Constitution ever devised. Unfortunately, few Americans know much about what our foundational legal document means or how it properly applies to modern life. And those who do study the Constitution often abuse (or artfully ignore) its text to advance a narrow political agenda.
Rob Natelson aims to remedy those problems. Natelson, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the original meaning of the Constitution, taught law at the University of Montana for over two decades. Now he has returned to Colorado, where he once practiced law, to serve with the Independence Institute. In recent months Natelson has lectured on the Constitution in Denver and Colorado Springs, most recently attending a meeting of Liberty In the Books (which Ari moderates).
Recently Natelson’s book “The Original Constitution” came out in a second edition. We encourage you to buy a copy and read it (search at Amazon), then share it with your friends. We are among the most fortunate people ever to walk the planet, because we have inherited the intellectual and legal traditions embodied in the Constitution. It is up to us to keep that heritage alive. We know of no better place to start than with Natelson’s book.
“The Original Constitution” embodies Natelson’s findings from years of research into stacks of documents, many in Latin, that informed the Founders. Yet the book is widely accessible and beautifully written. Natelson also offers a few hundred well-placed footnotes, as well as a descriptive bibliography, for those who wish to study further. The Constitution is a document for “We the People,” and so is Natelson’s book.
We especially admire the book’s integrity: “Among other academics, law professors are notorious for writing works of special pleading and calling them ‘scholarship’ — a practice I actively resisted during my long career in legal academia. I can assure the reader that this book is not a work of special pleading, but a depiction of a slice of history: the legal force of a particular legal document at a particular time.”
Natelson dismisses the notion, as expressed by Barack Obama, that it is “unrealistic” to “somehow discern the original intent of the Founders or ratifiers.” Instead, Natelson writes, “Competent Founding-Era scholars largely agree on what most of the original Constitution’s provisions mean. Much of the disagreement among constitutional writers results from unfamiliarity with the historical record or with eighteenth-century law.”
To offer an example of how Constitutional clarity can resolve today’s debates, consider what one writer claimed in the Washington Times: “Mr. [Herman] Cain’s 9 percent national sales tax simply isn’t constitutional.” Wrong. While we think a national sales tax is a really bad idea, it passes Constitutional muster. The Constitution grants Congress the power to impose “indirect” taxes such as a sales tax, as Natelson makes clear. In aninterview he confirmed, “A national sales tax is clearly constitutional, so long as uniform throughout the country.”
During the Liberty In the Books meeting, Natelson debunked another view of the Constitution that we have expressed. The idea is that the “commerce clause” grants Congress the authority only to “make regular” (regulate) interstate commerce, not restrict commerce. Not so, says Natelson. Instead, that clause gives Congress power to restrict commerce. However, Natelson explains, the “commerce clause” was intended to grant much less power than is commonly assumed today. For example, properly interpreted it would not allow Congress to force people to buy insurance, as ObamaCare proposes.
We are not convinced, however, that original intent always should dictate Constitutional interpretation. The literal meaning of the text also matters, as do the logical implications of the text.
Natelson offers an example in his book that we think supports this line of reasoning. Originally, Article III established that the “judicial power of the United States” extended to “controversies… between a state and citizens of another state.” Natelson convincingly argues that the Federalists thought this would not overturn “sovereign immunity,” or the power of states not to be sued by individuals. But the Supreme Court decided to read the text literally and allowed a man from South Carolina to sue Georgia. This unpopular decision quickly led to the passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which affirmed that a state cannot be sued by “citizens of another state.”
As Natelson pointed out, Chief Justice John Jay helped decide the Georgia decision. Jay, you’ll recall, was an author of the Federalist Papers. If even Jay looked to literal meaning over original intent, might that justify us doing the same?
It matters very much whether we look strictly to original intent, or whether we also examine literal meaning and logical implications, in evaluating the significance of the First Amendment, “due process of law,” and other key Constitutional provisions.
Yet, regardless of where we may ultimately end up in that debate, we acknowledge that it is critically important to understand the original intent of the Constitution. We thank Natelson for helping us do that.