question about a Madison quoteI am using a quote from a Madison letter in an essay about judicial review and want to ensure I am reading it right. Is he basically saying that the Founders knew...

question about a Madison quote

I am using a quote from a Madison letter in an essay about judicial review and want to ensure I am reading it right. Is he basically saying that the Founders knew people would have differences of opinion and misunderstandings of some of the facts and ideas in the documents and continuing process of interpretation is required and people need to settle disputes regulary?

"It could not but happen, and was foreseen at the birth of the Constitution, that difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally arise in expounding terms and phrases necessarily used in such a charter..and that it might require a regular course of practice to liquidate and settle the meaning of some of them."

This is a link to letter for context.

Asked on by kateew

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belarafon's profile pic

belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

From the same letter:

The specified powers vested in Congress, it is said, are sovereign powers, and that as such they carry with them an unlimited discretion as to the means of executing them. It may surely be remarked that a limited Govt. may be limited in its sovereignty as well with respect to the means as to the objects of his powers; and that to give an extent to the former, superseding the limits to the latter, is in effect to convert a limited into an unlimited Govt. There is certainly a reasonable medium between expounding the Constitution with the strictness of a penal law, or other ordinary statute, and expounding it with a laxity which may vary its essential character, and encroach on the local sovereignties with wch. it was meant to be reconcilable.

In simple terms, do not give Congress -- and by extension, the Courts -- the unlimited ability to interpret the Constitution any way they see fit, or risk turning our Republic by the People into a Monarchy by the Ruling Class. Also note his use of the term reasonable medium; in other words, amend when necessary but do not eliminate or rewrite the original words. We need to see where we made mistakes to avoid making them again.

Madison was a complex man and I don't think his letter lend themselves to a perfect, simple interpretation; the original quote seems to me to be simply an explanation of the amendment process.

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Just wanting to add my support of the other posters. I think that Madison did know that the Constitution would exist as a living and breathing document. To believe that it was not would be to fail to see the lasting importance it would have on the United States.

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I thought it might be helpful to you to look around and see how this passage has been interpreted by others.  The links below may be helpful to you.  You can copy and paste these links into your browser and go directly to the relevant pages.

http://books.google.com/books?id=r6euHRazaHsC&pg=PA131&dq=%22It+could+not+but+happen,+and+was+foreseen+at+the+birth+of+the+Constitution,+that+difficulties+and+differences+of+opinion+might+occasionally+arise+in+expounding+terms+and+phrases+necessarily+used+in+such+a+charter..and+that+it+might+require+a+regular+cours&hl=en&ei=5exuTsmqMIO_gQeWiuWtCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22It%20could%20not%20but%20happen%2C%20and%20was%20foreseen%20at%20the%20birth%20of%20the%20Constitution%2C%20that%20difficulties%20and%20differences%20of%20opinion%20might%20occasionally%20arise%20in%20expounding%20terms%20and%20phrases%20necessarily%20used%20in%20such%20a%20charter..and%20that%20it%20might%20require%20a%20regular%20cours&f=false

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http://books.google.com/books?id=uougKpW_DnoC&pg=PA98&dq=%22It+could+not+but+happen,+and+was+foreseen+at+the+birth+of+the+Constitution,+that+difficulties+and+differences+of+opinion+might+occasionally+arise+in+expounding+terms+and+phrases+necessarily+used+in+such+a+charter..and+that+it+might+require+a+regular+cours&hl=en&ei=5exuTsmqMIO_gQeWiuWtCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22It%20could%20not%20but%20happen%2C%20and%20was%20foreseen%20at%20the%20birth%20of%20the%20Constitution%2C%20that%20difficulties%20and%20differences%20of%20opinion%20might%20occasionally%20arise%20in%20expounding%20terms%20and%20phrases%20necessarily%20used%20in%20such%20a%20charter..and%20that%20it%20might%20require%20a%20regular%20cours&f=false

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http://preview.tinyurl.com/3q9kkk9
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http://preview.tinyurl.com/3qk36nq
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booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

My sense is that Madison was a realistic man. He was aware that men and their laws change, that the world changes, and that the lanuage of people changes with the times. Any forward-thinking man would be hard-pressed to believe that anything is ever "written in stone," and this is certainly for the best.

As men and their governments change, and generations come and go, Madison would have known that the true test of any document, such as the Constitution, would be its ability to stand up to the changing times. Some flexibility, without sacrificing the integrity of the original document, would be necessary, and only great minds would be able to handle such a task.

pacorz's profile pic

pacorz | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

I agree with #5, and I also think that Madison was essentially granting permission to future generations to revisit and reinterpret the Constitution. He says that the need for reinterpretation "was forseen", and he suggests a planned cycle of doing so.

I think Madison wanted us to have enough flexibility to keep the Constitution a living document for changing times.

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think the quote you have referenced makes it clear the way that the Constitution would need, by its very nature, an on-going process of interpretation and clarification as it is very unlikely for any one text to be interpreted in any one way. Given the many different views about the majority of texts, a text as important as the Consitution would be under close scrutiny as different people read it and interpreted it differently. It would therefore be inevitable that discussion would be necessary to decide on how certain sections could be interpreted.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Let's look at this line by line:

difficulties and differences of opinion might occasionally arise in expounding terms and phrases necessarily used in such a charter

This means that every now and then people would disagree as to the meaning of various words and phrases in the Constitution (charter).  He's talking specifically about issues of federalism, as can be seen in the link.

it might require a regular course of practice to liquidate and settle the meaning of some of them

This means that the interpretation of those ambiguous parts would have to be done on an ongoing basis.  It won't just be a one time thing and shouldn't be ad hoc.

So, I agree with your reading except for the part about misunderstandings/mistakes.  I think he's saying that they are just differences of opinion, not that one side is right and the other is wrong.

kateew's profile pic

kateew | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) Honors

Posted on

In reply to #3: Thank you. I was in a bit of a hurry when I posted question.

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