Originalism: History Of The Word, Meaning, Definition, And Evolution

By | October 22, 2020

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Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. (Howard Chandler Christy/Wikimedia Commons)

"Originalism" is a word that's being tossed around quite a bit today, and while it's played a part in political decisions for decades, it's not something that the average American thinks about on a day-to-day basis. With the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, however, comes the discussion of what it means to be an originalist. What does "originalism" mean? Is there such a thing as originalist evolution? We'll get into it and break it down.

What Is Originalism?

The baseline definition of originalism is the belief that legal documents, especially constitutional ones, are meant to be interpreted as they were written at the time they were written. Judges, lawyers, and legal experts who adhere to this philosophy determine their decisions based on their best estimation of what the original authors of a law had in mind when it was penned. Laws and legal documents, according to originalists, don't evolve and can only be changed through amendments or by doing away with a law altogether. To put it as plainly and broadly as possible, originalists believe that each amendment of the U.S. Constitution covers no more and no fewer situations than it did when it was passed, from the First Amendment in 1791 to the 22nd in 1947. On the opposite end of the legal spectrum sit living constitutionalists, legal professionals who believe that the meaning of constitutional documents should change along with social norms and attitudes. 

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The Committee of Five, composed of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. ( US Capitol/Wikimedia Commons)

How Do Originalists Determine Original Intent?

To discern the subjective intent of someone who wrote a law in the 1700s or even the 1930s is to put yourself in the shoes of someone living in completely different circumstances than we do today. One method of determining original intent is studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and records of the Philadelphia Constitution. If those two collections don't provide enough illumination, lawmakers are encouraged to seek out debates in state legislatures.

There are problems with this kind of legal interpretation. How does one get to the bottom of what the Founders thought about a particular subject when they didn't leave detailed records of their intent? It's also impossible to know if a group as large as the Founders all had the same intentions as one another, and many scholars argue that they didn't. To combat these potential complications, a group of legal scholars developed a version of originalism called "original meaning."