Thursday, May 21, 2009

Is it even possible to have a Constitution that's not "actual"?

This odd note appeared on White House correspondent Jake Tapper's blog at the ABC news website:

"No, that was not an actual copy of the Constitution behind President Obama as he spoke today.
A spokeswoman for the National Archives confirms that just like in the movie National Treasure, the document on display today was a facsimile."

I have over thirty copies of the Constitution in my place, mostly appendices in various constitutional law books. I never really thought of them as "facsimiles" of the Constitution any more than I think of my volume of the complete works of Shakespeare as a facsimile of his original manuscripts. Hamlet and the First Amendment aren't deeds to a house or titles to a car where you need the one and only original copy to be valid, instead they are written words meant to be communicated. So what does it matter if the copy of the Constitution in my desk drawer is part of a mass printing on twenty-first century paper instead of being the original parchment? Any good copy of the Constitution gets the job done.

Even more troubling is the word "actual" in Tapper's first sentence. Here is Webster's definition of actual. The relevant definition in the sense Tapper uses it, I think, is part b of the second one, "existing in fact or reality." Surely the document behind Obama at the speech wasn't a figment of our imaginations; it would be an "actual" Constitution even if it had the Fourth and Fifth Amendments transposed, although in that case it would clearly not be an "accurate" one.

So obviously what Tapper meant was the copy of the Constitution behind President Obama was not an original manuscript signed in 1787 by thirty-nine men in Philadelphia.

But so what?

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