In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson
Many Americans have taken to carrying a copy of the Constitution. No one will want to lug around The Heritage Guide to the Constitution, but the book is an indispensable reference companion. The first words in the book read, “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution is intended to provide a brief and accurate explanation of each clause of the Constitution as envisioned by the Framers and as applied in contemporary law.” It achieves this goal admirably.
As you would expect from the Heritage Foundation, this is an Originalist reference book, and the editors have done an excellent job of explaining the Constitution as envisioned by the Framers. But it also explains the Constitution as applied in contemporary law, which means the book describes how courts have interpreted the Constitution.
The Heritage Guide to the Constitution covers each clause of the Constitution and the twenty-seven amendments. Each article includes a description of the original understanding, current law associated with the clause, and historic development of current doctrine. Articles also include credible differing interpretations of original understanding. Significant court cases and interrelated clauses are cross-referenced.
There are three essays in the beginning. All well worth the reading. Edwin Meese III wrote “The Meaning of the Constitution,” which describes the significance of this grand document and its evolution over time. Matthew Spalding presents an excellent summary of the Federal Convention of 1787. David F. Forte explains “The Originalist Perspective.” This last is more complex than one might suppose. Simplifying Forte’s definition, an Originalist looks at the meaning of the words in the Constitution, the convention debates, shared political philosophy of the framers, Ratification debates, The Federalist and other contemporaneous articles, historical practice by the Founding generation, and early judicial interpretations.
The Originalist perspective is consistent with the intent of the Framers. They believed all power emanated from the people, and a Constitution was a compact between the people and their government. The meaning of the compact was what was understood by We the People when it was ratified or as amended by the prescribed process. A living constitution would be abhorrent to the Framers. Unfortunately, the Originalist perspective is not accepted by all.
I cannot accept this invitation [to celebrate the bicentenial of the Constitution], for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever ‘fixed’ at the Philadelphia Convention… To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start. Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice.
The United States Constitution has proved itself the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written. Franklin Roosevelt, President
The words of the Constitution … are so unrestricted by their intrinsic meaning or by their history or by tradition or by prior decisions that they leave the individual Justice free, if indeed they do not compel him, to gather meaning not from reading the Constitution but from reading life. Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court Justice
If you prefer a Constitution to have meaning that can be relied upon, then you need The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. It’s not only interesting reading; it will help you win Constitutional arguments with friends, neighbors, or family. Come to think of it, every lawmaker ought to have a copy on his cadenza.