Ulysses S. Grant on Interpreting the Constitution Through The Lens of Original Intent

With all of the debates we have about the proper method for interpreting the U.S. Constitution–both then and now–I find U.S. Grant’s perspective important and quite compelling. The following is one of my favorite quotes from him:

“The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and do his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented; sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze–but the application of steam to propel vessels against both wind and current, and machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances had changed as greatly as materials ones. We could not and ought not to be so rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable.”

From Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume I, p. 220-221

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3 responses

  1. Oh, don’t go there. The originalists will freak out because they would lose their ability to say their cherry picked quotations and out of context pieces of information are exactly what the Founders wanted and therefore it would be unAmerican to challenge their self-appointed authority as guardians of the nation. To say that the Founders obviously made the document flexible so that future generations could adapt it to their own situations as needed is heresy to the originalists.

    Of course they don’t even get the historical parts right at all, but the originalists aren’t interested in historical accuracy, just in coming up with some stuff to make their ideas seem in line with the Founders.

    1. I think it’s an interesting and novel way of explaining one way of interpreting the constitution. Unfortunately we are all too often anxious to bend the beliefs of the Founders to suit our own political agendas, and by doing this we incorrectly assume the Founders were all on the same page about how they wanted the country to be governed and how best to interpret the constitution. Grant’s assumption that they all would have agreed with the flexibility of the document could be just as problematic as the originalists argument that we must view the document in terms of the world in 1787. That said, I do think Grant’s view is more compelling in that the world changes, new circumstances arise, new technological advancements emerge, and that finding a balance between liberty and order requires us to think about how the Constitution applies to our world today, not just 1787.

      1. I think the Founders understood the need for the Constitution to be flexible enough to adapt to unknown situations. It has withstood the test of time quite well and that is a testament to both them and the people that understood the need to avoid a rigid set in stone approach to its interpretation. I believe it is a living document and the US government in all three branches bears this out.

        Did the Founders agree on everything? HA! That’s one of the biggest problems with originalists in the first place. All one has to do is look at the elections of 1796 and 1800 to see the disagreements. The arguments can be found in the creation of the document itself and its ratification. What they did agree on was that once the Constitution was ratified, it was time to make it work. That is maybe the most overlooked part of the whole thing.

        They would fight over the meaning of the Constitution and what direction they were going, but they would come together to make it work. They built a nation on compromises and agreements, some good and some not so good. But they didn’t tear apart the nation like some in later generations would try to do or desire to do. They realized the “my way or the highway” approach was not the way to construct or govern a nation.

        It is too bad some people today can’t figure that out. I believe we have a Civil War that shows us just how destructive that my way or the highway philosophy can be.

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