Why Is the Constitution So Difficult to Interpret?

For all its inspiring rhetoric and historic significance, the U.S. Constitution is also pretty vague at points (not to mention very old-timey sounding).

Containing 4,543 words, it takes just a half hour to read, yet it remains the law of the land for a powerful nation of over 300 million people. It is no wonder its contents are constantly up for debate.

Today, it is the Supreme Court that ultimately holds interpretive power over the famed document, but it hasn't always been that way.

When the U.S. Constitution went into effect in 1789, it was immediately heralded as a success. The six-year-old Articles of Confederation had proven problematic in setting up a strong central authority, and the Constitution rectified that in laying out firm and - what were meant to be - inflexible guidelines for governance.

The U.S. Constitution was, and still is, considered "rigid" because its provisions cannot be legally changed as easily as ordinary laws, according to the U.S. National Archives, which is now charged with the safekeeping of the original document.

Just because it wasn't meant to be modified doesn't mean that those laws were never discussed, however. The Constitution doesn't claim to cover all eventualities, nor does it even offer a method of interpretation, so problems of clarification occurred almost immediately.

The Constitution was questioned notably in 1803, when the landmark case Marbury versus Madison established the Supreme Court as the utmost authority and decision-maker on the document's laws.

Since then, the Supreme Court has dealt with many issues of constitutionality, as well as how to blend the provisions of a 200-year-old decree with modern issues.

Politically, there are many sides to the Constitution debate - from those who would prefer it be taken literally to others who recognize the ideological evolution inherent in the passing of a couple centuries.

The Supreme Court deals with questionable interpretations of the Constitution on a case-by-case basis, providing checks and balances on the it, just as the Constitution intended.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.