Strict Constructionism

The term strict constructionism refers to a philosophy of law that would restrict judicial interpretation of the law, as well as of the U.S. Constitution, to apply the text of the law, exactly as written, in making judgements and rulings. In other words, under strict constructionist principles, judges would not be allowed to consider the intent of the law, but be held to enforcing the actual wording. To explore this concept, consider the following strict constructionism definition.

Definition of Strict Constructionism


  1. The philosophy of interpreting or construing the law and the U.S. Constitution, while strictly adhering to the text exactly as it is written.


Late 18th century         Colonial American interpretation of the U.S. Constitution

History of Strict Constructionism in the United States

In colonial America, framing the Constitution, and getting it ratified by the states, was only the beginning of the new nation’s legal philosophy. While the provisions of the Constitution were intended to ensure the American people continued to live free of an oppressive government, the people expected the judicial system to provide a framework for their lives. Many individuals who had a great influence on the government of the time began to be concerned with certain decisions made by Congress, or by the judiciary, in that they seemed to be taking liberties, as they interpreted the Constitution and the laws according to their own beliefs regarding the intent behind the text.

Members of the Democratic-Republican Party began hoisting the idea of strict constructionism about, arguing that the powers bestowed on the federal government by Article I of the U.S. Constitution should be strictly interpreted. Because some of the provisions of the Constitution are stated vaguely, leading to interpretations that were alternately broad and narrow, strict constructionists embraced the specific, if incomplete, descriptions of powers granted to Congress, which were apparently deemed necessary by advocates of the Constitution during its ratification.

Perhaps the earliest example of strict constructionism is found in Thomas Jefferson’s opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s proposition to establish a national bank, which would issue currency to the nation. Jefferson opposed the plan, stating that Article I of the Constitution indeed gives Congress the power to coin money, and to regulate its value, but it does not give Congress power to create a national bank.

Legal Application of Strict Constructionism

One of the most challenging issues of judicial procedure is applying the law when making legal decisions. While many statutes (laws) are written in very specific language, making it relatively easy in many situations to apply the law case-by-case, other laws, and the provisions of the Constitution, are rather vague. Because every legal case is unique, this poses a problem for many judges, who are left with a quandary as to interpretation.

Strict constructionists are those people who believe that every law and constitutional provision should not be subject to interpretation, but applied strictly as written. This means that, under strict constructionism, there is no room for considering the context in which the law was made, or for taking into account the specific circumstances of any individual case. The very idea of taking such a narrow view of the nation’s freedoms, obligations, and laws, is seen by many to be irrational, leading to the moniker “the doctrine of absurdity.”

Broad Constructionism

Opponents to strict restrictions on interpretation of the law argue that the specific language of the Constitution cannot be directly applied to modern legal issues. Considered to be “broad constructionists,” these people also believe that the broad, and often vague language, of the U.S. Constitution requires governmental or judicial interpretation using the current facts and issues.

This argument between broad constructionism, also referred to as “liberal constructionism,” and strict constructionism has been commonplace since Colonial America. Throughout America’s history, the nation’s leaders have taken a back-and-forth stance, often relying on the then-current interpretation of the “Necessary and Proper Clause,” contained in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 18, which grants Congress the authority to:

“… make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Strict Constructionism Applied to Slavery

In 1833, a U.S. Army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, bought a slave named Dred Scott. Dr. Emerson took Scott with him when he moved to an Army base in the Wisconsin Territory, where the Missouri Compromise had banned slavery. Scott lived in the area for four years, remaining and seeking employment during the stretches that Dr. Emerson was away. During this time, Scott married and had children. In 1840, Scott and his family moved with Dr. Emerson to St. Louis, where the doctor died, bequeathing the entire Scott family to his wife. In 1846, Dred Scott, who had worked diligently to save money, sought to buy his family’s freedom from the doctor’s wife. She refused.

Scott sued the woman in state court, arguing that he and his family were free, as they had lived in a territory where slavery was outlawed. After four grueling years, the court finally declared the Scotts to be free. There was further arguing in court, as Scott had been denied his pay the entire time the matter was before the court, and Mrs. Emerson refused to pay, instead taking the matter to the Missouri Supreme Court, which overturned the state court’s ruling.

When the matter made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856, the Court issued what is quite possibly the nation’s most infamous ruling based on strict constructionism. In the Court’s ruling, Chief Justice Roger Taney expressed the opinion that certain clauses of the Constitution “point directly and specifically to the negro race as a separate class of persons, and show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed.” It is true that, at the time of the ruling in Scott v. Sanford, the determination of the number of Congressional Representatives for each state counted each slave as only three-fifths of a human being.

Justice Taney, in explaining why the Constitution tied the Court’s hands in the Scott matter, stated that no change in opinion, or any one person or the nation, should prompt the court to interpret provisions of the Constitution with “a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted.” Taney went on to say that, if the people found any provisions of the Constitution to be unjust, there is an approved method for amending it. The Dred Scott case is certainly representative of the issue of strict interpretation of the text of the law, and whether personal or public opinion should have a place in the U.S. legal system.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Ratification – The official method of approving something, a formal ratification of a proposed law.

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