It’s (not quite) a Riot! How the Constitution’s language differs

December 26, 2012 by Rob Natelson
Filed under: All Postings, The Founding 

RGN Montpelier '07“. . . it opens a door to the appointment of a swarm of revenue and excise officers to prey upon the honest and industrious part of the community, eat up their substance, and riot on the spoils of the country.”

– Judge Robert Yates, New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention (warning in Dec. 1787 under the pseudonym “Brutus” of consequences if federal powers were too broadly interpreted)

Today we think this of quote as rather fun (and prescient), but also rather odd. Did the writer really think that federal officials would be forming mobs in Washington, D.C., smashing windows, physically looting, perpetrating those other outrages we now associate with a riot?

No, he didn’t. The quotation illustrates how the English language has changed since the Constitution was adopted.

In the 18th century, the word “riot” usually meant something like “revel” or “enjoy immoderately”—captured in the modern phrase, “Let’s party!”

John Ash’s Dictionary of 1775 defined “to riot” this way: “To revel, to give a loose to luxurious enjoyments, to become tumultuous, to raise an uproar, to raise sedition.”

Note that the modern meanings of “to raise an uproar” and “to raise sedition” appeared, but they were less common, secondary definitions.

When looking up Founding-Era words, never rely only on one source. So let’s look at a more famous dictionary. These are the definitions of “to riot” from the 1786 edition of the dictionary composed by the great Samuel Johnson:

“[1.] to revel; to be dissipated in luxurious enjoyments
2. To luxuriate; to be tumultuous.
3. To banquet luxuriously.
4. To raise a sedition or uproar.”

The definition closest to modern usage ranks last!

Yet the older meaning of “riot” survives in some modern expressions. For example, I might say, “The party last night was a real riot”—thereby implying lavish enjoyment, not sedition or violence.

The word “riot” does not appear in the Constitution, but other terms with changed definitions have. When I was still teaching law school, I used to pose this one to my students: What is the meaning of the Preamble’s phrase, “a more perfect Union?”

Almost invariably they’d say something like “A better union.” But when the Founders adopted those words, the usual meaning of “perfect” was complete. Through the Constitution, the people founded a union more complete than had existed under the Articles of Confederation.

The older meaning of “perfect,” like the older meaning of “riot” and many other words, survives in expressions we still use. Consider the common phrase “a perfect storm.”

Fortunately, most of the Constitution’s words have not changed meaning. Nevertheless, Americans engaged in the laudable and enjoyable enterprise of studying the Constitution need to know there have been changes, and they have a way of sneaking up on you. Some of the words and phrases that had different meanings, shades of meaning, or specialized meanings include provide, necessary, proper, establishment of religion, privilege, advise, and freedom of speech.

These phrases and others are discussed in my book, The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant.

Discovering such meanings is one of the rewards in learning more about our American Constitution. Not quite a riot, but good fun.

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