Vanderbilt Law Review

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It is all very well, indeed it is very good, to bear down on the fact that the author of the Constitution was, and still is, "We the People of the United States." But there is more sentiment than explanation in it. We think too much about who is the author of the Constitution. Of course it was not the Convention of 1789, nor the First Congress which wrote the Bill of Rights, nor the Thirty-Ninth which wrote the Fourteenth Amendment. It was We the People, but even when we have recognized this, all we have done is recognize that it is an ambulatory document. We the People did not drop out of the picture in 1789, or in 1791, or in 1868 when We ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. We kept pace with what We had said. But the important question to ask has nothing to do with the author. The important question is, To whom are We speaking?

When I turn to the Constitution, I am not really turning to a single document, except typographically. For the Constitution is addressed to a number of persons. In some places, to the Supreme Court itself; for instance, in the Third Article on the judicial power. It is speaking to Congress in the important section eight of the First Article where Congress' legislative powers are set down; and also in section nine, which prohibits Congress to pass bills of attainder, export duties and other things. Throughout the document we find that different parts are addressed to different persons and institutions, and the point I make is that they may interpret the words very differently. Even the same word may mean different things when they are addressed to different people. The person addressed determines the meaning quite as much as the context, since it is he who will first give meaning to the word or phrase on any particular occasion. In the interpretation of the Constitution, this is of paramount importance, because here the courts must pay the person addressed the respect due to an organ of government of equal rank and dignity.