“Structural” versus “Declaratory” Provisions of the Constitution and Originalism

For purposes of this paper, the provisions of the U.S. Constitution can be broken down into two different major categories. The first category of provisions are “structural”. These include such things as Article I, Section 8, which sets forth the powers of Congress, all of Article II, some of Article III, Article V, and Article VI. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

These structural provisions of the US Constitution set forth things like how a bill becomes a law; that the Congress will be divided into a House and a Senate; how congressmen and the President are elected; how long congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, and the President serve; how treaties are ratified, etc. Most of these “structural provisions” could have been arranged differently. For instance, it is conceivable that the Founders could have decided to have a unicameral legislature (one chamber of Congress instead of two), or that they could have made the President’s term of office 6 years instead of 4.

Most of these “structural provisions” were based in political expediency, or in the historical and social circumstances of the states at the time the US Constitution was ratified. For instance, at the Constitutional Convention, there were two competing “plans”. These two plans represented differing interests of low-population states versus high-population states, as well as other interests of the time.

The first plan, put forth by James Madison and Edmund Randolph, became known as “the Virginia Plan”. It called for a much more unified Republic with state sovereignty significantly reduced by allowing the national legislature to veto all state laws.[1] By way of contrast, the Constitution actually adopted just implicitly says that state laws that are contrary to the Constitution are void under the Supremacy Clause of Article Six, Clause 2, but it does not empower Congress with a cart-blanche veto power over any and all state laws.

Large states like Virginia supported this plan because it would give high-population states more power in the national legislature. Low-population states preferred the New Jersey Plan, which would have created a single unicameral national legislature that kept the one-vote-per-state representation found under the Articles of Confederation. With the New Jersey Plan, small states could more easily prevent large states from enacting legislation that would have trampled on their sovereignty as states. The New Jersey Plan was more of a modification of the existing Articles of Confederation, while the Virginia Plan threw out the Articles altogether.

At the end of the day, neither the Virginia Plan nor the New Jersey Plan was enacted. The document eventually adopted regarding legislative power was reflected in the “Connecticut Compromise”. It retained the bicameral legislative features of the Virginia plan. Also like the Virginia plan, in the lower house, there would be proportional representation based on state population. However, the upper house would have two representatives per state, thereby ensuring that low-population states could not be dominated by high-population states in the new Congress.[2]

The other major category of provisions that can be found in the US Constitution are what I call the “declaratory provisions”[3]. These provisions don’t set forth the powers of government or government officials, or how government is to operate. Instead, they state certain fundamental rights that citizens or residents of the United States possess. Most of these “declaratory provisions” are found in the first Ten Amendments to the US Constitution. For instance, Amendment I says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

These first ten Amendments reflect the Enlightenment tradition of individual rights[4], and were adopted in order to placate the anti-federalist critics of the Constitution. At the time, some state constitutions included a bill of rights[5], and the English legal tradition, as embodied in the Magna Charta, often had a declaration of rights. During the debates leading up to the ratification of the US Constitution, Madison and Hamilton responded to anti-federalist complaints about the lack of a declaration of rights in the proposed document by saying it was unnecessary, and that such a declaration could actually be dangerous to the rights of individuals.

Hamilton’s opposition to a bill of rights can be found in Federalist Number 84:

The most considerable of these remaining objections [of the Anti-Federalists] is, that the plan of the convention contains no bill of rights….I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and in the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colourable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretence for claiming that power. They might urge with a semblance of reason, that the constitution ought not to be charged with the absurdity of providing against the abuse of an authority, which was not given, and that the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication, that a power to prescribe proper regulations concerning it, was intended to be vested in the national government. (Emphasis added, Federalist Number 84, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/bill_of_rightss7.html )

In essence, Hamilton said that there was no need for a declaration of the right of freedom of the press in the new Constitution because the Constitution did not authorize the Federal government to regulate the press at all. Article I, Section 8 sets forth the scope of Congress’ powers, meaning that unless a power is granted to Congress under this section, then it has no power to act. Since there is no power to regulate the press, Congress does not have the power, and it can make no law regarding press or speech.

Additionally, Hamilton goes on in the above-quoted text to note that a bill of rights provision stating that Congress can make no law regarding the freedom of the press could be construed as meaning that Congress has this power –that it might give a “…plausible pretence for claiming that power…” In other words, a bill of rights for Hamilton and Madison, could actually be dangerous because someone might assume that Congress has the power to regulate speech and press, when, under Article I, Section 8, it has no such power.

At the end of the day, Hamilton, Madison, and other supporters of the new Constitution compromised on the issue of a Bill of Rights. In order to avoid the problem of “constructive powers” being implied to the new Federal government under the Bill of Rights, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were probably included:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[6],[7]

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

In other words, the 9th and 10th Amendments ensure that the people retain all of their rights, not just the ones set forth in the Constitution, and that the Federal government only has the power to act insofar as it has been delegated powers under the Constitution.

In order to properly understand this distinction between “structural” provisions on the one hand and “declaratory” provisions on the other, it is necessary to move into the realm of political philosophy and philosophy of law. Specifically, it must understood what a constitution is, and what purpose it serves.

Human life is not guaranteed. If one wants to live, then one must take certain actions. Such actions are a necessary condition for living. Man posses a rational faculty that allows him to comprehend laws of nature and to adjust his natural environment, in accordance with those laws, to maximize his chances of survival. For instance, someone recognizes that it is human nature to require protection from the snow, the rain, and the cold. A man’s chances of survival are maximized when he is protected from certain weather conditions. He also notices that certain types of plants and trees, when properly harvested and arranged, can provide a barrier against the weather. So, he gathers naturally occurring elements like trees, rocks, and dirt, and combines them to build a house. Another man recognizes that he needs nourishment, and he learns to build weapons to hunt the lesser animals with, or he makes a plow and plants seeds to grow crops.

Food, shelter, clothing, and other values are necessary for man’s survival, and are typically not found in nature, or are not sufficiently plentiful to sustain man’s life. As his technology and scientific knowledge grows, man’s capacity to improve his life grows. Men have gone, over several millennia, from living in caves to building rockets to the Moon -all thanks to man’s capacity to recognize reality, formulate general principles of cause and effect, and to act accordingly. Man’s mind allows him to recognize cause and effect relationships amongst entities that exist, to recognize his own nature as a living being and a rational animal, and to take action aimed at his survival.

Just as other inanimate entities have a certain nature, so does man. Man is the “rational animal”. He is a living organism of a certain kind and, in principle, he must therefore act in accordance with that nature if he wants to survive. A man cannot live like a plant, by merely sitting and absorbing nutrients from the sun and the soil. A man must engage in a process of thought, and create the wealth necessary for his survival. Men also have the capacity to engage in collaborative endeavors amongst themselves that benefit all participants. Men can trade with other men, which means that individual human beings gain from certain types of associations with each other. If men are going to benefit from each other, they must recognize that each individual living in society acts to provide the things necessary for his survival, if he wants to live. All men must recognize the moral principles defining and sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action in a social context. These moral principles are known as individual rights. Although the list is not exhaustive, fundamental individual rights include the right to live and the right to private property. The right to live is the ultimate individual right, and forms the basis of all rights.

Although most choose to live as traders and producers, some human beings choose not to think and produce their own values. Some will attempt to take what others have produced by means of force. Such people are known as “criminals”. The criminal attempts to gain values from others not by voluntary trade, but by means of force or the threat of force. A criminal substitutes reason and persuasion for force in an effort to gain values from others, or to destroy the values of others. Criminals are force-initiators. They use their fists or a weapon, or they threaten the use of force, to gain what others have produced without their voluntary consent.

If men are to live together in society, then they must create an institution or collaborative agreement to protect those who want to live by means of reason, persuasion, and trade from those who wish to destroy or take the values of others by means of physical force. Although in an emergency, each individual has a right to use force in retaliation and to defend himself from a force-initiator, a formal institution to stop such force-initiators, with objective rules of procedure and fair notice of what is prohibited, is necessary once a society gets beyond a certain point in size and geographic scope. This organization is known as “government”.

There are various reasons why government is necessary if rights are to be protected, and this paper is not meant to be an exhaustive critique of the political philosophy of anarchism, but some of the major reasons why government is essential for the protection of individual rights will be discussed prior to turning to constitutional law.

Without a central governmental authority, it is difficult for others to know whether a person using force in retaliation against a criminal is truly acting in retaliation. Concretely, imagine that a criminal has stolen a person’s property. The victim then goes to the criminal’s house, and holds him at gunpoint while recovering his stolen property. If others see only the victim holding the criminal at gunpoint, how will they know that this is not a robbery? If the criminal’s family or friends see this, and know nothing about the circumstances, then they might mistakenly believe that the victim is the force-initiator, and use force to stop what they perceive as a robbery. This in turn would lead the victim’s family and friends to counter-retaliate, and society could devolve into gang-warfare.

By instituting formal rules of procedure in this situation, misunderstandings can be minimized. The victim of a burglary goes to a socially recognized authority, the police, and files a complaint. The police then investigate, while ensuring that the rights of the accused are respected. Another branch of the government, the courts, then make a determination, in accordance with pre-established rules of evidence and procedure, as to whether the property was in fact stolen, and issue a ruling.

Another important function that only a government can serve is to provide all members of society with prior notice of exactly what actions are violations of individual rights. Citizens elect representatives who then gather periodically and promulgate rules prohibiting certain actions that would violate individual rights. This representative body is generally called a “legislature”, and it sets forth the elements of crimes. For instance, at English Common Law, murder was defined as: (1) unlawful, (2) killing, (3) of a human, (4) by another human, (5) with malice aforethought. The legislature promulgates a statute which sets forth each of these elements, and they must all be proven by a certain standard of proof in a given circumstance before one can be shown to be guilty of the crime of “murder”.

Governments are instituted among men and derive their powers from the governed, who delegate some of their right to retaliatory force to that institution so that individual rights can be protected, and everyone can be assured that their own rights will be protected if they, or their friends or family, are ever accused of a crime. Government isn’t there just to do justice, but to show justice, and only justice, being done. It is there to assure everyone in society that force is only being used to protect individual rights. But, this raises a new problem. How to ensure that those acting on behalf of government –the police, the military, the courts, and the legislature- do not themselves become force-initiators? If the fundamental powers of government are written down in a document, then it is clear what actions government officials can take, and the exact procedures for taking such actions. Any power not granted by this written document is not a power delegated to the government by “the people”. This is the purpose of a written constitution. In other words, a written constitution can be defined as the fundamental charter delegating the peoples right to the retaliatory use of physical force to a central authority. Only the powers granted to government agents in a written constitution are authorized.

The difference between these two types of provisions found in the US Constitution suggests that they have different origins and should be interpreted in accordance with different methodologies. As was already stated, the “structural” provisions of the Constitution represent decisions at the time the particular document was adopted. They represent the political and social circumstances at the time of ratification, and might be significantly different if circumstances had been otherwise. The “declaratory” provisions tend to be more “abstract”, “timeless”, or “universal”. For instance, a right to freedom of speech and the press is seen as essential to all human beings everywhere, and under all circumstances, while the creation of an upper house of the federal legislature whose members are chosen by individual state legislatures (the Senate) is more a matter of social, economic, and political circumstances at the time of adoption. In some other nation, with some other set of historical circumstances, a unicameral legislature might make more sense. The structural provisions represent the compromises that made the union possible. The structural provisions have a role to play in ensuring rights are protected via such things as separation of powers and checks and balances, but they presuppose the rights that they protect.

Given what has been said about the strong role of historical, political, and social context at the time they were ratified, the structural provisions of the US Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with that historical, political, and social context. In other words, the structural provisions of the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with original meaning, as described by Justice Antonin Scalia and others.[8] The reasoning here is fairly simple: (1) A constitution is the fundamental charter delegating the people’s right to the retaliatory use of physical force to a central authority, and only the powers granted to government agents in the written constitution are authorized; (2) “the people” currently living may not have ratified the constitution, but they are free via its amendment process to alter it at any time; (3) since the currently living have chosen not to amend the enacted constitution, they must still prefer its original terms. When judges interpret these structural provisions of the Constitution, they should therefore look to original meaning on the assumption that it is what the current generation of the body politic prefers. Since most of these provisions have to do with the powers and structure of government, it would undermine the idea of “the consent of the governed” for judges to reinterpret, for instance, how a bill becomes a law. It would abrogate the consent of the governed if the courts suddenly decided that “times had changed”, and only a majority of Senators had to vote for a bill that was signed into “law” by the President, and by-passed the requirement that a majority of the House of Representatives also vote in favor.

Using “original meaning” makes no sense with regard to the “declaratory” provisions of a constitution because these provisions describe universal individual rights, and the protection of rights is the very purpose of government, and a constitution, in the first place. Individual rights are conceptually and logically more fundamental than any written constitution, and form the underlying moral foundation for a written constitution. The source of rights is not divine law, and it is not Congressional law. As discussed, rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning an individual’s freedom of action in a social context. They ensure that the individual is free to live in society. People have freewill so, they can choose not to respect individual rights. However, when the majority of a society fails to respect rights, it will disintegrate. Only a society that respects rights to life, liberty, and property can remain functional long-term, because it is the only society that leaves people free to think and act on their own best judgment in the maintenance of their individual lives.

[1] See The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Gordon S. Wood, Chapter XII, “The Worthy Against the Licentious”, Section 1, “The Federalist Revolution”: “Not only should the national government have a ‘positive and complete authority in all cases where uniform measures are necessary,’ as in finance, commerce, and foreign policy, but it should have ‘a negative, in all cases whatsoever, in the Legislative acts of the States, as the King of Great Britain heretofore had.’”

[2] See The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Gordon S. Wood, Chapter XIII, “The Federalist Persuasion”, Section 7, “The Redefinition of Bicameralism”: ”With the ‘Connecticut compromise,’ which provided for two senators from each state, the Federalists found a justification for the upper house that they had not anticipated. ‘The people will be represented in one house, the state legislatures in the other,’…The Senate now became a means of restraining ‘the large states from having improper advantages over the small ones.’”

[3] Hamilton also appears to make this “structural” versus “declaratory” distinction in the Federalist Papers: “Independent of those, which relate to the structure of the government, we find the following: Article I. section 3. clause 7. “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honour, trust or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law.” Section 9.” http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/bill_of_rightss7.html

[4] The Meaning of the American Revolution, Dan Lacy, Chapter 1, “The Eighteenth-Century World”: “The general body of thought we call Newtonian was most effectively applied to social issues by another Englishman, John Locke (1632-1704)…they dominated political thought for a century to come and provided the philosophical basis for the American Revolution.”

[5] See The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, Gordon S. Wood, Chapter VII, “Law and Contracts”, Section 2, “The Contract of Rulers and Ruled”.

[6] James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900). Vol. 5. 6/26/2015. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1937#Madison_1356-05_877: “The exceptions here or elsewhere in the Constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people, or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the Constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.”

[7] James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence, including his numerous letters and documents now for the first time printed, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900). Vol. 5. 6/26/2015. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1937#Madison_1356-05_898: “It has been objected also against a bill of rights, that, by enumerating particular exceptions to the grant of power, it would disparage those rights which were not placed in that enumeration; and it might follow by implication, that those rights which were not singled out, were intended to be assigned into the hands of the General Government, and were consequently insecure. This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may [385] be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the fourth resolution. [See above footnote for this clause.]”

[8] Section 70, “The false notion that the Living Constitution is an exception to the rule that legal texts must be given the meaning they bore when adopted”. In: Scalia, A. and Garner, B. (2010) Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, “Preface”. St. Paul: Thompson/West Publishing.

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I am Dean Cook. I currently live in Dallas Texas.