Originalism and Determining Meaning

Originalism and Determining Meaning

Originalism is a theory of Constitutional interpretation that places primacy on the meaning of the text of the Constitution - yet the question of determining how much can be understood from the Constitution is debated among Originalists.

Some Originalists think that the text only provides a narrow or ambiguous meaning, leaving room for significant construction of meaning to fill in the gaps.  Other Originalists argue that the text itself supplies more explicit meaning, leaving less room or need for construction.

This unit in the No. 86 project explores different views in this debate about the “construction zone.”  

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.”

― Federalist No. 10

In addition, Originalists, over time, have used different methods and relied on different sources to conduct original public meaning analysis, including looking at Founding-era documents, dictionaries, and newer scholarly methods such as corpus linguistics.  We explore similarities and differences among these schools of thought.

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1 of 11: How far does the original meaning determine the legal meaning of the text? [No. 86]

Do Originalists agree on how much you can understand from just the text of the Constitution? Professor John McGinnis explains the debate about the “construction zone.” Some Originalists think that the text only provides a narrow or ambiguous m ... Do Originalists agree on how much you can understand from just the text of the Constitution?

Professor John McGinnis explains the debate about the “construction zone.” Some Originalists think that the text only provides a narrow or ambiguous meaning, leaving room for significant construction of meaning to fill in the gaps. Other Originalists argue that the text itself supplies more explicit meaning, leaving less room or need for construction.

Professor John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University School of Law.

As always, the Federalist Society takes no position on particular legal or public policy issues; all expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.

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