Historical Versus Iconic Meaning: The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Interpreter’s Dilemma – Article by Daniel Farber

From Volume 89, Number 3 (March 2016)

The Declaration of Independence is one of the paradigm texts of American history. It was originally written for a time-specific purpose. But it also has spoken to a broader audience across time, as an icon representing American ideals. After describing how the Declaration has been given both historical and iconic meaning by judges, presidents, and public figures, this Article considers the relevance of these two forms of meaning to current debates over constitutional interpretation. Originalists generally privilege the historical meaning of texts. Yet originalist Justices on the Supreme Court have acknowledged that iconic meaning also exists and can sometimes be more relevant. In Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460 (2009), originalist Justices turned to the iconic meaning over the historical meaning, endorsing dynamic interpretation of public monuments—even those containing texts. Ironically, then, they found fluidity in the meaning of texts that are literally carved in stone. This Article closes with a discussion of the interpreter’s dilemma: the tension between fidelity to the past (served by historical meaning) and affirmation in the present (served by iconic meaning).



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