Vanderlyn, James Madison, 1816
I, sir, have always conceived - I believe those who proposed the constitution conceived,and it is still more fully known, and more material to observe, those who ratified the constitution conceived, that this is not an indefinite government deriving its powers from the general terms prefixed to the specified powers - but, a limited government tied down to the specified powers, which explain and define the general terms.
I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that is not the guide in expounding it, there may be no security for a consistent and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers. If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense. And that the language of our Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its founder, will I believe appear to all unbiased Enquirers into the history of its origin and adoption.
James Madison, letter to Henry Lee, June 25, 1824
The best reason to be assigned, in this case, for not having made the Constitution more free from a charge of uncertainty in its meaning, is believed to be, that it was not suspected that any such charge would ever take place; and it appears that no such charge did take place, during the early period of the Constitution, when the meaning of its authors could be best ascertained, nor until many of the contemporary lights had in the lapse of time been extinguished. How often does it happen, that a notoriety of intention diminishes the caution against its being misunderstood or doubted!
James Madison, letter to Joseph Cabell, October 30, 1828