The Obscurity of Language

James Madison wrote thirty of The Federalist Papers. Number 37, often ranked among his most important, analyzed three prominent difficulties faced by the Constitutional Convention. First, the Convention had to identify the problems experienced under the Articles of Confederation. The Convention then had to agree on solutions to these problems, and finally the Convention had to find the right words to justify its actions.

This last difficulty Madison explained in a brilliant paragraph focusing on the nature of human language—“the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other.” Madison suggested that human beings used words “to express ideas.” Consequently “perspicuity” required “not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them.”

Unfortunately, according to Madison, “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include” words that denote equivocal meanings. Hence, no matter how sound the ideas were, “the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered.” The inaccuracy would be increased “according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined.”

To emphasize his argument Madison alluded to the Bible. When God condescended “to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Madison felt that a dispassionate discourse would cut through the obscurity of language and reveal the Constitution’s inherent strengths, so that it would be “impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

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