The history of constitutional interpretation is notorious for its occasional contortions of speech and logic. But in the case of the Ninth Amendment, history has been truly acrobatic. Whereas the original purpose of this amendment was to guard against expansions of federal power, its recent interpretations have tended (you guessed it) to expand federal authority.
When the Constitution was first being debated during the Ratification period of 1787-88, many Antifederalists denounced the plan of government because it did not contain any bill of rights. Several Federalists, including James Madison, countered that a bill of rights was not only unnecessary in a constitution of limited powers, it was even “dangerous, because an enumeration which is not complete is not safe.”
The Federalists argued that any enumeration of rights would unavoidably imply powers that had never been granted. For instance, if the Framers were to add a provision declaring that Congress had no power to abridge the right of free speech, that prohibition would imply that Congress would have possessed that power without the prohibition. And the Framers did not wish to imply that Congress possessed any powers except the ones that had been enumerated.
When Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the prospects of adding a bill of rights, he confessed: “My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights, provided it be so framed as not to imply powers not meant to be included in the enumeration.”
And when proposing a bill of rights to the First Congress, Madison acknowledged that this fear — “that those rights which were not singled out” would be insecure by implication — was “one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system.” But he assured Congress that his proposal for what would eventually become the Ninth Amendment should prevent any such misinterpretation of the Constitution.
Therefore, the Ninth Amendment (like the 10th Amendment) was always intended to be nothing more than a rule of construction: a guide for understanding how the Constitution was meant to be interpreted.
Madison’s initial proposal for the Ninth Amendment makes these intentions clear: “The exceptions here or elsewhere in the Constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people, or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the Constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution” (emphasis added).
However, Congress streamlined Madison’s wording by removing the clauses about the enlargement of federal powers.
Virginia delegate Edmund Randolph was incensed when saw the revised version, believing that Congress had removed the most important part of the amendment. Virginia’s objections to the final wording of the Ninth Amendment actually delayed that state’s ratification of all the amendments for two years, which delayed ratification of the entire Bill of Rights.
Madison was flummoxed trying to understand the basis of Virginia’s objections, because he believed that the protection of individual rights and the protection against expansions of federal powers were merely two sides of the same coin: “the distinction,” insofar as Madison could see it, was “altogether fanciful.”
Alas, among Madison’s most charming blind spots was this one: He earnestly believed that Americans could always be trusted to interpret the Constitution in accordance with its intended meaning.
Madison’s faith was proved disastrously misplaced with recent interpretations of the Ninth Amendment. In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Justice Arthur Goldberg wrote that “the right of privacy in the marital relation is fundamental and basic — a personal right ‘retained by the people’ within the meaning of the Ninth Amendment.” In other words, the Ninth Amendment was being used to grant the Court an authority to decide which rights (unnamed within the Bill of Rights) now deserved protection by the federal government. It was being used as an expansion of federal authority over state laws.
In his dissent, Justice Potter Stewart criticized the Court’s interpretation of this amendment: “to say that the Ninth Amendment has anything to do with this case is to turn somersaults with history.” Nevertheless, the Court’s reasoning in Griswold has turned somersaults in “privacy cases” ever since, including Roe v. Wade (1973). It has been a truly acrobatic history.
• Lynn Uzzell, Ph.D., is a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University and an adjunct professor of politics at the University of Virginia. She is currently working on an authoritative and impartial appraisal of Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention.
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