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Originalism and Uncovering Meaning

How do we determine the original public meaning of the Constitution? Professor Jennifer Mascott gives an overview of different ways we can conduct original public meaning analysis, including a relatively new approach: corpus linguistics, which informs our understanding of original public meaning by looking at the whole body, the whole corpus of language at the time. https://youtube.com/watch?v=iP2hXfxlyCY


So originalism in its most general form is the idea that the Constitution had a particular meaning at the time that it was ratified, and that that meaning should should govern us still today, and is fixed meaning based in one point in time.Then the question becomes though, how do we uncover and determine what that meaning was? What did the document mean when it was ratified in the 18th century? And right now, the predominant method of original interpretation looks for the original public meaning. That general idea is to try to understand what the public objectively would have understood the text of the Constitution to mean at the time, not necessarily what each specific drafter of the Constitution or what each specific ratifier of the Constitution meant. So in other words, to find out the meaning of the Constitution, it wouldn't just be legitimate to look at what James Madison, who was involved in in helping to draft some of it, thought. Evidence that people look at for original meaning can include a lot of sources. It can include dictionaries that were relevant at the time. It can include statements made during the ratification debates that the public would have had access to. But it can also include a broader body of sources, like what was happening historically at the time? What was the understanding of governmental power, perhaps from state constitutions? Or a new strand of original public meaning analysis looks at something called corpus linguistics, the whole body, the whole corpus of language at the time. So corpus linguistics can be seen as its own in in independent methodology. Some people are treating it that way. Many scholars who are originalists see corpus linguistics as a very helpful tool to get at a much larger, more objective, more empirically sound swath of data than we were able to look at in the past, but to also put that in the context of history and all of these other sources to make sure that they all line up, giving us a broad understanding of a particular constitutional term. And so someone coming from that interpretative methodology would also maybe want to look at a large quantity of documents to figure out what a word meant, including letters that were written at the time, speeches that were given. Sources of material that are going to get at lots of different types of writing, types of speaking, coming from lots of different individuals, so that we can get a broad base sense about what a term meant, not just what one or two individuals thought about a particular phrase.

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