In law, words are the company they keep, or Noscitur a Sociis. When referring by context of law the word "inhabitant" can mean another individual, but not necessarily you. Example: The context of the word "person" as defined in the 1755 Samuel Johnson Dictionary (1755) means only " a living, breathing, thinking being." But if you look the word "person" up in a Blacks Law 1st Ed.100 years later it includes corporations, and other non-living entities.

If the Founders intent is essential, that intent can only be found by utilizing the dictionary they used when writing the Constitution. To change the meaning of any word in the Constitution, can drastically alter the Founders true intent. Certainly,under their dictum, a corporation was not a person.

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    I’m voting to close this question because it belongs on politics.stackexchange.com Nov 18 at 14:59
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    Neither "the Founders' intent is essential" nor "intent can only be found by utilizing [a] dictionary" are absolute legal principles. If you start from the point of view that they should be, then the argument is circular - you're just giving an example of how that view point could be applied.
    – IMSoP
    Nov 18 at 15:10
  • I disagree with you IMSop. My example speaks for itself. You cannot possibly expect the Founders intent to be pinpointed without considering the dictum of the day. That makes no sense whatsoever. Manipulation of words can dramatically alter intent of thought. Nov 18 at 15:16
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    @DavidBeaulieu If you define "intent" as "literal meaning of the words used", you have a circular argument. If you define "intent" as "the meaning intended by the author, even if they expressed it poorly", then a dictionary is neither necessary nor sufficient, although it may be useful as part of a broader analysis. And if you do not believe that "intent is essential", then the whole line of reasoning is irrelevant. The answer to "how is this being ignored?" is quite simply that not everybody agrees with the preconditions of your argument.
    – IMSoP
    Nov 18 at 16:03
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    Is anything happening in US law today that depends on whether corporations were thought to be included in the word "person" by the drafters of the constitution, the bill of rights, or any other amendment? For example, despite some of the things said about the Citizens United opinion, the first amendment does not use the word "person." At the same time, "inhabitant" appears only in connection with qualification for various electoral offices, while the right to hold such offices is definitely not among the rights extended to corporate entities under the theory of corporate personhood.
    – phoog
    Nov 18 at 16:50

2 Answers 2


The prevailing originalist methodologies today focus on original public meaning

You present the hypothetical:

If the Founders intent is essential...

But it isn't, according to the predominant modern strands of originalism. The prevailing originalist approach is focused on original public meaning, not original intent.

Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner wrote, in Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) (emphasis in original):

It is the one that we espouse: original meaning, as opposed to original intention (which devolves into trying to read the minds of enactors or ratifiers). This brand of originalism — as opposed to the search for historical intent, which we renounce — holds sway with many respected scholars today.

Dictionaries can be relevant but they are not the end or even necessarily the starting point of the analysis

You go on to say:

that intent can only be found by utilizing the dictionary they used when writing the Constitution.

Dictionaries are relevant but not the only source, and meaning is contextual. See William Baude & Jud Campbell, "Early American Constitutional History: A Source Guide", listing dictionaries as one of many sources that inform original public meaning.

He notes:

Dictionaries are a tempting source for easy citations, but they should be used with delicacy. Most English speakers do not learn English from a dictionary, nor do they routinely use dictionaries before deciding what to say. Instead, dictionaries are more useful as descriptive accounts of how contemporary speakers tend to use particular words.

And Scalia and Garner say:

Most common English words have a number of dictionary definitions, some of them quite abstruse and rarely intended. One should assume the contextually appropriate ordinary meaning unless there is reason to think otherwise. Sometimes there is reason to think otherwise, which ordinarily comes from context. And it should not be forgotten that not all colloquial meanings appropriate to particular contexts are to be found in the dictionary.


First, it is false that "intent can only be found by utilizing the dictionary they used when writing the Constitution", in fact intent can rarely be discerned by appealing to a dictionary. A better textual source is "their writings". Second, "original intent" is only one of many ideologies underlying the interpretation.

The connection between corporations and the word "person" is made because a corporation is an arrangement of some sort between natural persons. It is uncontroversial that two individuals have a constitutionally protected right to form a contract. The same protected right to form contract is recognized via case law (Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 US 518), and that the charter of the college is not a relation between the government and its citizens, it is between individuals (in this case, one individual, The King, and a group of individuals).

Corporate personhood is judged on a clause-by-clause basis, always reducing to seeing (or denying) that in the particular case the corporation is (not) exercising a right on behalf of natural persons. Your own property interests and the right to a day in court to protect those rights is not diminished by dint of the interest being expressed via a collective corporate action (such as "baking and selling loaves of bread"). There are many rights of natural persons which do not extend to corporations, for example there is no 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The Privileges and Immunities Clause does not extend to corporations.

It was clearly the intent of the Founders that the rights of natural persons to form contracts should not be impaired by the government, and that a person has a right to their day in court, and that is exactly what corporate-personhood doctrine recognizes – the government cannot obliterate an individual right because it is being exercised via a particular kind of agreement.

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