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A Discussion on Definitions

It is self evident the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were well educated. Many had attended institutions of higher education. Clearly all were well schooled in the basics of the English language and thus understood the meaning and intent of words they used. As stated by the Supreme Court in United States v Sprague, 282 U.S. 716,731 (1931):

"The Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning. ... If the framers of the instrument had any thought that amendments differing in purpose should be ratified in different ways, nothing would have been simpler that so to phrase article 5 as to exclude implication or speculation. The fact that an instrument drawn with such meticulous care and by men who so well understood now to make language fit their thought does not contain any such limiting phrase affecting the exercise of discretion by the Congress in choosing one or the other alternative mode of ratification is persuasive evidence that no qualification was intended."

There is nothing to suggest members of Congress in 1787, many of whom were delegates to the Federal Convention of 1787, were any less schooled or knowledgeable regarding the meaning and definition of words used by them when enacting legislation. Therefore these men understood the subtitle differences between words such as "alter", "amend" and "revise" as well as the meaning of the word "agree."

FOAVC believes examining the precise definition of these words is helpful to understanding congressional intention vis-à-vis authority of the Federal Convention of 1787 in its February 21, 1787 convention call. While FOAVC ordinarily relies on Black's Law Dictionary for definitions, in this instance the reference used is Oxford Dictionary. Black's Law Dictionary bases its definitions primarily on state and federal court opinions. At the time the words in question were used, none of these opinions existed.

Therefore while Black's definitions may be correct, the basis for their definitions came after the event. Oxford Dictionary on the other hand, relies on the meaning of the word based on its linguistic origin. In this case  the French and Latin origins predate 1787 by centuries. Further, in the late 1700's a well educated person was frequently educated in both foreign languages and usually fluent in both. Dictionaries of varying quality had existed since the 1600's which in some cases defined the words.

The definition of the three words appears not to have changed since the earliest time meaning in all probability the definition given by Oxford Dictionary is the one understood by the members of Congress in 1787. FOAVC believes Oxford Dictionary therefore to be a reliable source for definition for the words "agree", "alter", "amend" and "revise" as they would have been understood in 1787. The definitions below are copied directly and exactly as presented by Oxford Dictionary.

The defintion of "agree" is: "(1) Have the same opinion about something; concur: 'I completely agree with your recent editorial' 'we both agreed on issues such as tougher penalties for ciminals' [with direct speech] "Yes, dreadful, isn't it,' she agreed' 'I don't agree with random drugs testing in schools' (2) (agree to" or "to do something) Say that one will do something which has been suggest by another person: 'she had agreed to go to see a movie with him'; consent, assent, accede (2.1) [with object] Reach agreement about (something) after negotiation: 'if they had agreed a price the deal would have gone thorugh' [no object] 'the commission agreed on a proposal to limit imports' (3) (agree with) Be consistent with: 'your body language does not agree with what you are saying' (3.1) Grammar Have the same number, gender, case, or person as: 'the verb agrees with the final noun' (3.2) [usually with negative] Be healthy or appropriate for (someone): 'she's eaten something which did not agree with her' Phrases: agree to differ; Cease to argue about something because neither party will compromise to be persuaded. Origin: Late Middle English: from Old French agreer, based on Late ad- to+gratus pleasing."

The definition of "alter" is: "(1) Change in character or composition, typically in a comparatively small but significant way. [with object] 'Eliot was persuaded to alter the passage' 'an altered state' (1.1) [with object] Make structural changes to (a building) 'plans to alter the dining hall' (1.2) Australian, North American [with object] Castrate or spay (a domestic animal). Origin: Late Middle English; from Old French alterer, from late Latin alterare, from Latin alter other."

The definition of "amend" is: "(1) Make minor changes to (a text, piece of legislation, etc.) in order to make it fairer or more accurate, or to reflect changing circumstances. 'the rule was amended to apply only to non-members' (2) Improve the texture or fertility of (soil) 'amend your soil with peat moss or compost' (2.1) archaic Put right. 'a few things had gone wrong, but these had been amended' Origin: Middle English; from Old French amender, based on Latin emendare (see emend)."

The definition of "revise" is: "VERB: (1) [with object] Reconsider and alter (something) in the light of further evidence: 'he had cause to revise his opinion a moment after expressing it' (1.1) Examine and improve or amend (written or printed matter): 'the book was published in 1960 and revised in 1968' 'a revised edition' (1.2) Alter so as to make more efficient: 'the revised finance and administrative groups' (2) British [no object] Reread work done previously to improve one's knowledge of a subject, typically to prepare for an examination: 'students frantically revising for exams' [with object] 'revise your lecture notes on the topic' NOUN: printing A proof including corrections made in an earlier proof: 'I handed in the revises this morning' Origin: Mid 16th century (in the sense 'look again or repeatedly (at)'); from French réviser look at, or Latin revisere look at again, from re-again + visere (intensive form of videre to see)."

The definitions make it clear the word "revise" is of broader scope than the other two words. The words "amend" and "alter" both are contained within the definition of the word "revise." Thus when you "revise" something you can "alter" it as well as "amend" it. Strictly speaking, if you "amend" something you cannot "alter" it. If you "alter" something you cannot "amend" it. However you can do both if you "revise" something. Moreover both "alter" and "amend" refer to "minor" or "small" changes in text or content while "revise" implies a larger or more comprehensive change. As Congress clearly understood the limitations imposed by the words "alter" or "amend" which permited only "small" or "minor" changes in text it was not an accident the word "revise" was used instead. 

The text of the convention call of February 21, 1787 proves this assumption. Congress instructed the Federal Convention of 1787  to "render the federal Constitution  adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union." Oxford Dictionary defines the word "exigency" as an "urgent need or demand." Used in the plural as in the convention call, clearly Congress recognized several "urgent needs or demands" which "minor" or "small" changes in text of the Articles of Confederation would not resolve. If "minor" or "small" changes were all that were required to render the Articles of Confederation "adequate to the exigencies of Government and preservation of the Union" reasonably, Congress would have forgone the convention and simply proposed the "small" or "minor" alterations themselves.

Obviously, by calling the convention Congress realized a more substantive change was required to accomplish the goal of addressing the exigencies of Government than the words "alter" or "amend" permitted. To accomplish the goal of addressing the multiple problems of government Congress chose the more broad and incompassing word "revise" to describe the purpose and authority of the Federal Convention of 1787.

Page Last Updated: 9 APRIL 2017