Vagueness and silence in the Constitution

The combination of ambiguity and silence on important issues is both a strength and a weakness of the Constitution. This ambiguity has allowed the Constitution to adapt and change over time. The meaning of terms like 'general welfare' and the necessary and proper clause has evolved since the Constitution was first written. The necessary and proper clause, also known as the 'elastic clause,' has enabled Congress to adjust laws to fit changing circumstances and values. For instance, the Immigration Act of 1924 had racial biases, but the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, showing a shift in values. However, the vagueness of the Constitution has also been a weakness. The omission of slavery in the original document eventually led to a civil war in the 1860s before the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery in 1865. The lack of reference to democratic principles in the original Constitution meant that it took years and amendments like the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 to grant women the right to vote. The original Constitution's ambiguity is evident in areas like gun rights and war powers. The Second Amendment mentions the right to bear arms within the context of a well-regulated militia, raising questions about the extent of this right. The term 'arms' has also evolved from muskets in the 1780s to include modern weapons like semi-automatic firearms and handguns.

Retired Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens proposed revising the Second Amendment to enhance clarity, suggesting: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed." The issue of whether Congress or the president holds ultimate responsibility for initiating military action is similarly unclear. While the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war, it also designates the president as commander-in-chief. The Founding Fathers likely envisioned Congress as the primary institution but recognized the need for swift presidential action in emergencies such as unexpected attacks. However, in practice, presidents have often ordered military actions first and then sought retroactive approval from Congress. This approach has sometimes involved secrecy and covert operations, like the covert bombing missions in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War (1955–75). The ambiguity surrounding this issue has facilitated the Constitution's adaptation without formal amendments but has also led to uncertainty and a lack of clarity, prompting the Supreme Court to intervene where needed.