What is Original Intent?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 02 March 2020
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Original intent is a term used in consideration and interpretation of constitutional and statutory documents with regard to how such laws and regulations should be executed. It can be utilized for purely academic reasons, such as considerations of the philosophy of law, or for more practical purposes. The basic concept behind this approach to law is that later legal interpretation seeks to understand the intent of those who drafted the law, to better understand its purpose. Original intent can be something of a controversial subject, and is open to a wide array of criticism and argument with regard to conclusions that may be made.

While the term can sometimes be used synonymously with “originalism,” original intent is often considered as a separate philosophical aspect of constitutional or statutory interpretation. There are typically two main purposes for consideration of original intent, which are purely academic explorations of legal precedents and applicable interpretations of prior laws. In either approach, the goal is typically to ascertain the purpose of a law and the intent with which that law or regulation was established.


Original intent is often discussed with regards to the constitution of a country, and in the US there is a great deal of debate over the US Constitution and various methods of interpretation. The intent of those who drafted a document such as the US Constitution is often analyzed and considered by students of American law in an effort to better understand the basic structure and meanings of the document. This use of original intent is often not applied directly to legal regulations and statutes, however, but is intended as a means to better understand the minds that drafted such a document.

The use of original intent in interpreting constitutions or statutes in a court of law or house of congress, on the other hand, is typically not meant to be purely philosophical. Such uses often seek to understand the intent of a law in order to properly interpret that law in a modern context. Proponents of this approach often argue that understanding intent is crucial to understanding what affect on society a law was meant to have. Opponents of this form of interpretation, however, argue that a document like the US Constitution, which had dozens of contributors, surpasses in meaning the intent of any one individual in that group.

This conflict, between those who seek the intent of the people who created a document or law and those opposed to the very notion of such intent, often leads to controversy and conflict. Certain political movements have also sought to utilize the idea of original intent to further various political goals. These movements often use the concept to support a move toward political and ideological views that are “old fashioned” or “traditional” by associating the goals of such a movement with the perceived intent of past political figures.


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Post 2

I had an history professor who once said the original intent of the Constitution could be summed up in one sentence: "Don't do it like England." The British government controlled private ownership of guns, but the American government wouldn't. The British government could shut down a press for publishing anti-government broadsides, but the American government wouldn't.

Post 1

I see a lot of "original intent" when it comes to interpreting or arguing the Second Amendment. Some people say the original intent of that amendment was to allow for instant militias for homeland defense purposes, not private ownership of all types of weapons. Others say the original intent was to keep the government out of the gun control business.

Sometimes I think it's nearly impossible to figure out the original intent of the framers of the Constitution, simply because they were all living in a different day and time.

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