The Public Meaning Thesis: An Originalist Theory of Constitutional Meaning
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
Public Meaning Originalism is the predominant form of constitutional originalism. What makes Public Meaning Originalism distinctive is the Public Meaning Thesis—the claim that the best understanding of constitutional meaning focuses on the meaning communicated by the constitutional text to the public at the time each constitutional provision was framed and ratified. This Article provides a precise formulation of the Public Meaning Thesis, supplies reasons for affirming the thesis, and answers objections. The constitutional record strongly supports the claim that the constitutional text was intended to communicate to the public. The Constitution begins with “We the People” and the ratification process included intense popular participation. Jurists and scholars emphasized the public nature of the Constitution.
The communication of public meaning is made possible by two features of constitutional communication. The first of these features is a shared language: the drafters of the constitutional text could rely on the fact that American English was spoken by most Americans and was accessible via translation to those who spoke German and Dutch. The second feature is a shared public context of constitutional communication: the drafters could rely on widely shared understandings of the circumstances in which the Constitution was framed and ratified. These features enable the creation of public meaning. Common objections to the Public Meaning Thesis, including the “summing problem,” are based on mistaken assumptions about the way linguistic communication works. In sum, the central claim of the Article is that Public Meaning Originalism provides the best understanding of original meaning and hence the most attractive form of originalist constitutional theory.