NOTE: In this letter to Thomas Ritchie on September 15, 1821, James Madison explains how to find the original meaning of the words in the Constitution. That is, through the understanding of those who gave it legal force in their respective state conventions.
As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character. However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the Authority which it possesses.
The Writings of James Madison. Edited by Gaillard Hunt. 9 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900–1910.
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