Punctuating the Constitution

Recently, I was challenged to explain the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to The United States Constitution [1], to distinguish between them, and to do so "briefly".

Upon reflection, I saw that each of them could be described quite simply -- once the context has been precisely defined and clearly understood.   I further realized that these two amendments - which appear at the end of the ten commonly called the "Bill of Rights" [2] - might, in a very real sense, be regarded as "punctuation marks" for all that precedes them.

I'll begin with the Tenth, since it applies to the body of the Constitution, not to the Bill of rights itself. The purpose of the Constitution is to grant certain powers to the new central government, a Federal "union" being formed by nine or more sovereign and newly-independent states. In the document, "we the people" give to the Federal government a carefully-delimited set of enumerated powers. Seventeen of these allowed powers appear in one section (Article I, Section 8), in a list of items under the phrase:

Congress shall have the power to ...
A few additional powers are granted elsewhere, stated either as powers of Congress or as powers of the other branches (Executive and Judicial) that the Congress authorizes to carry them out. Logically speaking, the Federal government, created by the Constitution, is limited to only those (twenty or so) powers, explicitly granted to it by that document It has no additional powers, and cannot assume additional powers - except via the amendment process.

The Tenth Amendment was added to assure this logical interpretation, (and, as such, is logically superfluous!) Thus, the meaning of the Tenth Amendment is to emphasize the punctuation mark that we commonly use to end a sentence:   Period. In effect, the Tenth Amendment says, says:

The powers of the Federal government are as stated above.
There are no further powers.

Preceding the Ninth Amendment are eight others in the "Bill of Rights" that explicitly forbid the Congress (and therefore the Federal government) from interfering with, curtailing, or abridging certain rights of the people, or preventing the free exercise thereof. (Note that these rights are NOT "granted" to the people. Rights are inherent within the individual, and therefore inseparable and "inalienable". A government cannot "grant" a right to an individual; it can only take away an individual's liberty to exercise a right.) Most of the Bill of Rights articles begin with the phrase:

Congress shall make no law   . . .  [3] .
and then proceed to list some things that must not be done by Congress nor by the governance it authorizes.

Of course, the explicit prohibitions of the Bill of Rights are logically superfluous, since the Constitution grants no such powers; yet they were added as a further clarification regarding the limitations of the Federal government. Nevertheless, several sovereign states (as well as some pedantic and/or paranoid people) feared that a list forbidding government from abridging SOME specified rights might someday be misconstrued as a complete and comprehensive list, and be misused (by a future tyrant) to argue that any other rights not listed could be abridged (despite the fact that the government had no such Constitutional power). Therefore, the Ninth Amendment was added to make clear that the preceding list of eight Amendments was only PART of the list of "rights" and that the list went on,   and on,   and on,   and   . . .   .

[[[ [Note that the preceding paragraph ends with four dots:   a three-dot ellipsis, followed by the period that ends the sentence. ]]]

While this notion might have been conveyed by use of the abbreviation "etc." (standing for the Latin term et cetra), the proper English punctuation to indicate an incomplete list is an ellipsis, consisting of three dots.

Thus, in terms of punctuation: As with any other important document, both context and punctuation are vital to understanding the semantics of the United States Constitution.

© 2004 by:    Bruce Alan Martin
P.O.Box 456, Middle Island, NY 11953
Revised 2005 May 28.