Strict Constructionism and the More Perfect Union

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The latest comments on my post about the English expressions 'more unique' and 'more pregnant' raise an interesting argument against strict constructionism as a method of interpreting the Constitution (as opposed to originalism, which I myself hold; see this post for the distinction). The preamble to the Constitution reads:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

A strict constructionist interprets an expression in an exact and literal, according to what the basic fundamental terms mean. An originalist (of the Scalia variety, anyway) interprets according to what the expression would have meant when it was written. The expression 'more perfect union' illustrates nicely not just the difference between the two but why strict constructionism is unworkable. The original meaning of that expression is pretty much the same meaning it would have in our mouths today, at least with respect to the use of the word 'perfect'. As I say in the post on 'more unique', something can be closer to something and be called "more unique". The expression in that context simply means closer to uniqueness. The same is true of being more perfect. The union will be closer to being perfect according to the preamble. That's how an originalist will interpret this. A strict constructionist, however, has to take the expression according to a literal, wooden application of strict rules about words and their meanings, without the common understanding I just explained of how this expression isn't like most expressions of something being "more X". A strict constructionist has to take the expression 'more perfect union' to be referring to something that is going to be literally more perfect than it already is, which is impossible. If it's perfect, it can't be more perfect. If it's not perfect, it can't be more perfect. There are basic linguistic reasons why it's wrong to correct people on this in ordinary discourse, but a strict constructionist can't avail themselves of these, because they don't involve strictly interpeting constructions.

Those who have followed my posts on translation, particularly Bible translation, can apply this lesson to the so-called literal translation issue as well. I'll leave that as the cliched exercise for the reader.

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