A light to follow, but not a GPS

Read any good letters of marque lately?

What, you don’t know what a letter of marque is? Haven’t you read your Constitution?

Back in the 18th century, letters of marque were government documents that gave privateers on the high seas permission to attack ships flying an enemy flag.  A form of legalized piracy.

The U.S. government hasn’t issue a letter of marque since the 1800s. The term is little-known.

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But the U.S. Constitution does mention letters of marque prominently.   Meanwhile, on any number of big modern issues, genetic testing, say, or Internet neutrality, it says not a word.

How could it? The squabbling white guys who long ago produced this messy, inspired document had their hands full. Their infant republic was collapsing. It’s a bit much to expect them to have anticipated every puzzle that might emerge centuries later in a mature, diverse global power.

The new Republican majority in the U.S. House last week decided to start the session with a reading of the Constitution. I think that was a splendid, fitting idea. It should become a tradition.

Maybe, if it did, some people in Congress might get a clue about what the Constitution is, and what it is not.

It is a North Star by which our republic navigates. But it is not a GPS. It does not give specific, turn-by-turn instructions on how to handle every twist in the road our modern society confronts.

Much of our federal government is now in the hands of the originalists – a faction that claim government should do only those things that were clearly the original intent of the Constitution’s framers.

They claim to be modest, in contrast to activist liberals. Ha! Like religious fundamentalists, originalists are cocksure that their reading of the sacred text – no matter how ignorant that reading may be of history, context, or later scholarship – is the only valid one. That is arrogance.

If you know your history, you know that the Constitution’s intent was being hotly contested before the ink even dried. It has stayed that way, a point of argument, interpretation and inspiration, for more than two centuries.

That’s the way it should be. Times change. So we don’t need letters of marque anymore.

But we do need the Constitution to be a living document.

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