C. Ikehara: The Constitution and Original Intent ... Sorting Out the Issues with Mozart's Help

Roundup: Talking About History

[C. Ikehara has been a Librarian for over ten years. His Masters Degree in Library Science is from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.]

"Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it." (George Orwell)  
In Germany, there is a flap over a production of an opera performance that includes a scene with the bloody severed head of Mohammed as well as that of other religious founders.  That scene was created by that production's director and as far as I know, the composer (Mozart) and librettist did not indicate in their stage directions that severed heads of religious founders were to be used in their opera IDOMENEO:  
"Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours." (John Ruskin)

  If all this seems far removed from your life, Mozart was alive on September 17, 1787 when, after months of discussion and argument, the Constitution was finally completed and signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
A month after the Constitution was signed,  Mozart's opera DON GIOVANNI had its world premiere in Prague. Couldn't the Constitution be thought of as a work of art--like an opera?
"There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books." (Charlie Chaplin)

"Not only does one not retain all at once the truly rare works, but even within such works it is the least precious parts that one perceives first. Less deceptive than life, these great masterpieces do not give us their best at the beginning." (Marcel Proust)
 Considering that it is now almost passe in a 21st-century opera production to see a shirtless Don Giovanni make his entrance wearing leather pants, might the signers find that their Constitution is now being interpreted in ways that they not only never intended, but also could never have even imagined?  
When one realizes that an American soldier who had been in North Korea for four decades before returning to the U.S. in 2005 was surprised not only to see so many women in the Army but also policemen who were black, the signers probably would be astounded to see women and minorities now in positions of responsibility and even authority. Since Aristotle's quote"Equality consists in the same treatment of similar persons" would have seemed perfectly sensible to them, wouldn't they be shocked to realize that we have come to interpret the ideals they expressed in their Constitution as to apply to all citizens?
When it comes to understanding the Constitution, a signer of the document himself warned:

"Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government." (James Madison)

Even the Ancients cautioned that any document would present problems for future generations hoping to discover its original intent:

"Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who receives it, in the belief that such writing will be clear and certain, must be exceedingly simple-minded." (Plato)

The fact that arguments are now increasing over what certain sections, phrases or even single words (e.g., "commerce") really meant hardly seems surprising considering that the Constitution was originally drafted in a very different kind of America over two centuries ago.  One of the signers said:

"Constitutions should consist only of general provisions; the reason is that they must necessarily be permanent, and that they cannot calculate for the possible change of things." (Alexander Hamilton)

If the Constitution's language today can seem vague, unclear, ambiguous or even contradictory as to its precise meaning and exactly what it allows (and doesn't allow), arguments about its interpretation began soon after it was drafted in 1787. By 1790, a dispute had already broke out between two of the signers of Constitution--Madison and Hamilton.

By 1816, their contemporary Thomas Jefferson had written in a letter:

"Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be nature herself indicates. By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided by the constitution, so that it may be handed on with periodical repairs from generation to generation to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure."

If that is the only way to create a truly 'living' document whereby each generation can take the legal legacy of their ancestors and have the opportunity to preserve what is still relevant yet revise what has become outdated, isn't it important for us to be certain that we completely understand not only what the signers hoped to achieve through their Constitution, but also what they were trying to avoid?:

"Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up." (G.K. Chesterton)

"You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. " (Ursula Le Guin)

Isn't that why we should never make any changes until we are absolutely sure of original intent?:
"Nothing is so simple that it cannot be misunderstood." (Freeman Teague, Jr.)
"There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it." (William James)
"The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold."  (Aristotle)

"To follow imperfect, uncertain, or corrupted traditions, in order to avoid erring in our own judgment, is but to exchange one danger for another." (Whately)

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