Law Professor Pinpoints Reasons for Arguments over U.S. Constitution

interpretations of constitution cause strife in washington and online

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The U.S. Constitution is often cited in political arguments and culture wars. However, despite everyone reading the same document, we often disagree with one another regarding its meaning. Constitutional interpretation lies at the heart of the issue.

U.S. Constitution with American flag in background
As our national government began, the Articles of Confederation proved too weak and were replaced by the U.S. Constitution, which unified the nation as a whole and vested the power of the union in the hands of its citizens. Photo by Kasia / Shutterstock

Scholars and the public interpret the Constitution of the United States in several ways. One popular interpretation is originalism, while another is living constitutionalism. Lawrence B. Solum of Georgetown University Law Center said, “Originalists argue that the constitutional text is fixed and that it should bind constitutional actors. Living constitutionalists contend that constitutional law can and should evolve in response to changing circumstances and values.”

These differing schools of thought often lead to arguments, especially about hot-button topics like gun control and abortion.

Regardless of any one person’s feelings about how the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted, it’s probably a good idea to know the history of how and why it was written. In his video series Law School for Everyone: Constitutional Law, Professor Eric Berger, Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, provides an enlightening tour of the Constitution’s origins.

At War’s End, a Difficult Beginning

“In the year 1786, the United States was in crisis,” Professor Berger said. “The young country had won its independence from Great Britain with the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, but its problems were far from over. States which had been allied with each other in the war against England now were becoming bitter rivals.”

For example, several of the states argued over how commerce should be conducted across state lines. They enacted laws that helped their own citizens, but hindered those from other states—as well as the states themselves. States that had sea ports taxed goods that were meant to be sold in other states, which had no other means of getting goods.

A dispute over fishing rights on the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland led to a call for heads of state to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss settling the petty trade disputes. Just five of them attended and calls were renewed for a meeting in Philadelphia the following year. The Philadelphia meeting became the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Like Pulling (Wooden) Teeth

“By the time the delegates met in Philadelphia, it was clear that the Articles of Confederation, which had taken effect in 1781, were insufficient to govern the young country,” Professor Berger said. “In a nutshell, the Articles of Confederation provided for only a weak central government, which was unable to manage either disputes between the states or the various external and internal threats the nation faced.”

The Articles of Confederation also left big problems for young America. For example, it left the government unable to tax the Confederation, so the country remained significantly in debt and without a clear and immediate source of revenue. So, the states sent delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, but many of them believed the Articles were outdated and beyond repair.

“Two disagreements dominated the convention,” Professor Berger said. “[The] first involved the question of how states would be represented in Congress. Second was the question of slavery—some Southern delegates insisted that the Constitution provide ample protection for slavery, and they got their way.”

Concessions were made both on states’ representations in Congress and on slavery. After much bargaining and disagreement among the states, the Constitution of the United States was ratified on June 21, 1788.

Law School for Everyone: Constitutional Law is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily