Interpretation of the US Constitution is constant. It happens in the Supreme Court, in congress, and by way of our president.
It takes place in court rooms and assembly halls all over the country every day. And it’s been happening since the document was written.
Even the last presidential election, it can be argued, dealt with some issues on how the constitution is interpreted.
The constitution was created by humans, so therefore, it’s a fallible document. But despite how often, and by whom it is interpreted or reinterpreted, there are only two types of interpretation of the US Constitution: strict construction and loose construction.
Those who are strict constructionists believe that the constitution has very little leeway for any interpretation and should be enforced as it was written. Strict constructionists believe that if the constitution does not state a specific responsibility or power of government, then the US Government cannot assume that power by passing a law or laws.
Loose constructionists, on the other side, believe that the constitution can be interpreted beyond what’s written. These folks believe that if the constitution does not deny a responsibility or power to the US Government, then a law or laws can be written to take action on a specific issue.
The issue of interpretation took place almost immediately after George Washington became president. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were constantly at odds over the constitution and other ideological issues. Hamilton believed in a strong central government and commercialization of the US while Jefferson believed the government should not be strong or centralized and that the economy should be based on agriculture.
The issue was the creation of a national bank. Hamilton, the loose constructionist here, argued that a national bank was necessary to coin money, store revenue, and collect and distribute tax money. Jefferson disagreed, saying that the constitution didn’t specifically give the US Government the power to create a bank. Eventually, Hamilton won the bank issue. The Bank of the United States was established and lasted until Andrew Jackson’s administration in the 1830s.
But Jefferson later flip-flopped to a loose constructionist when the opportunity to enlarge the US came up. Nowhere in the constitution does it mention that the United States could buy land, but Jefferson did so quickly when Napoleon Bonaparte put the Louisiana Territory up for sale. For $15 million Jefferson doubled the size of the US, which later became 14 states.
In later years, a crisis usually led to loose construction interpretations of the constitution. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to stack the Supreme Court with six extra justices, countering those who already sat on the court who were over the age of 70. Roosevelt wasn’t happy when the Supreme Court ruled that some of his New Deal policies of the 1930s were unconstitutional due to government overreach, so he wanted to fill the court with younger justices that were friendly to his policies and rule in his favor.
Our Second Amendment is an ongoing example of strict versus loose construction when interpreting the constitution. With every shooting in the US, the gun rights issue is politicized. Those who interpret it strictly believe in the exact wording of the 2nd Amendment, giving as many citizens as possible the right to bear arms, while the loose constructionists want to restrict gun ownership under the argument that the possession of weapons is only for police, militia, or military.
The Patriot Act and subsequent Freedom Act and the National Defense Authorization Act are recent laws and executive orders that that are examples of loose construction. By curtailing our rights, these laws have given government more power to fight the war on terrorism.
In hindsight, loose construction seems to have won throughout the course of US history. The US Government has become larger and stronger with each crisis and takes more citizens under its umbrella with the many safety nets available. Americans have a very different view of government today than Americans of 200 years ago.