How to understand the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

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As a historian, I’m interested in how the basic meaning of words important in our nation’s history has changed over time.

The Declaration of Independence provides an example. It says:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” (Emphasis added)

The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S Constitution — including the Bill of Rights — did mean what they said. They were being honest and straightforward. When they wrote “all,” they meant “all.”

But when those words were written, they didn’t carry the same meaning that seems obvious to most of us today. It was understood by the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution that “all” did not include the majority of people living in our country at the time.

In their thinking, those who deserved the guarantee of basic civil rights did not include women — whether white or black, wealthy or poor, North or South, young or old, married or not. Married women’s money and lives were legally controlled by their husbands; no women had the right to vote, or run for elected office; nor was it legally possible for a man to “rape” his wife, no matter her will or preferences.

From the founders’ perspective, it also seemed obvious that the 1.5 million black people who were legally enslaved in what became the United States were not included. Jefferson and other Founders denied black people the equality of endowed rights — the God-given basic rights they believed belonged to “all” — because they did not see black people as fully — or legally — responsible members of the community.

The point here is: the meaning of words and phrases in our Constitution has changed over the two and a half centuries since the Constitution was ratified. This, I believe, has created disagreements and confusion today about what freedoms are, and are not, guaranteed to us, legally and morally, by the Constitution. A careful reading of the Constitution is fundamental; but, unfortunately, the Constitution does not provide clear answers —much as we might wish it did. Throughout the history of our country, the Constitution has always required interpretation — and re-interpretation.

I believe it is fundamentally important for each of us to understand that while the Constitution is clearly written in unchangeable black and white, it has always been, and remains, a political document whose accepted meaning has changed dramatically over the generations.

Neither you nor I have a golden key to unlock the exact meaning of the Constitution. That’s because there is no stable, clear, unchanging reading of what the U.S. Constitution means. We all need a dose of humility — and uncertainty — when reading our country’s founding documents. They don’t always mean what they seem to say.

David Kobrin

Orcas Island