The Constitutional Dictionary – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

The Constitutional Dictionary

This document contains words, phrases, and concepts used in the United
States Constitution. Links to this document can be found on the U.S. Constitution Page. Note that some words are
defined only as they apply to the Constitution itself. You may also wish to see
the Popular Names Page, the Notes Page, and the Advanced
Topics Page


American Heritage Dictionary
The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia


adjourn v. 1. To suspend until a later stated time. [<OFr.
ajourner] adjournment n. Source: AHD


appellate adj having power to review decisions of lower courts
Source: NMW


apportion v. to distribute proportionately
Source: NMW

In the context of the Constitution, apportionment means that each state gets
a number appropriate to its population. For example, Representatives are
apportioned among the states, with the most populous getting the greater share.
Direct taxes (of which there are none today) were to be charged to the states
in this manner as well.

The need for apportionment of taxes, and the reason for it, is difficult for
us to imagine today, but there were good reasons for it. The following is an
explanation of the need for the Direct Tax Apportionment clause. It was written
by Supreme Court Justice Paterson in Hylton v US (3 US 171 [1796]):

The constitution declares, that a capitation tax is a direct tax; and
both in theory and practice, a tax on land is deemed to be a direct tax… The
provision was made in favor of the southern states; they possessed a large
number of slaves; they had extensive tracts of territory, thinly settled, and
not very productive. A majority of the states had but few slaves, and several
of them a limited territory, well settled, and in a high state of cultivation.
The southern states, if no provision had been introduced in the constitution,
would have been wholly at the mercy of the other states. Congress in such case,
might tax slaves, at discretion or arbitrarily, and land in every part of the
Union, after the same rate or measure: so much a head, in the first instance,
and so much an acre, in the second. To guard them against imposition, in these
particulars, was the reason of introducing the clause in the

attainder n. The loss of all civil rights by a person sentenced for a
serious crime. [< OFr. attaindre, to convict] Source: AHD

In the context of the Constitution, a Bill of Attainder is meant to mean a
bill that has a negative effect on a single person or group (for example, a
fine or term of imprisonment). Originally, a Bill of Attainder sentenced an
individual to death, though this detail is no longer required to have an
enactment be ruled a Bill of Attainder.

Bill of Credit

A bill of credit is some sort of paper medium by which value is exchanged
between the government and individuals. Money is a bill of credit, but a bill
of credit need not be money. An interest-bearing certificate that was issued by
Missouri, and usable in the payment of taxes, was thus ruled to be an
unconstitutional bill of credit.


concur v. 1. To have the same opinion; agree [<Lat.
concurrere. to meet] concurrence n. Source: AHD

Corruption of Blood

Corruption of Blood was part of ancient English penalty for treason. It was
usually part of a Bill of Attainder, which normally sentenced the accused to
death. The corruption of blood would forbid the accused’s family from
inheriting his property. Such bills and punishments were often inflicted upon
Tories by colonial governments immediately following independence. Source: 381 US 437


deprive v. 1. To take something away from; divest. 2. To keep from the
possession of something. [<Med. Lat. deprivare] Source: AHD

Domestic Tranquility

One of the concerns of the Framers was that the government prior to that under
the Constitution was unable, by force or persuasion, to quell rebellion or
quarrels amongst the states. The government watched in horror as Shay’s
Rebellion transpired just before the Convention, and some states had very
nearly gone to war with each other over territory (such as between Pennsylvania
and Connecticut over Wilkes-Barre). One of the main goals of the Convention,
then, was to ensure the federal government had powers to squash rebellion and
to smooth tensions between states.

Double Jeopardy

Double jeopardy is a term used in law. Double jeopardy is forbidden by the
Constitution. Double jeopardy is what would happen is someone were to be
charged with a crime and be found innocent, and then be charged with that crime
a second time. For example, if you are charged with stealing a car, and a jury
finds you innocent, you cannot be charged with stealing the car again.


emolument n [ME, fr. L emolumentum, lit., miller’s fee, fr
emolere to grind up] : the product (as salary or fees) of an
employment Source: NMW


enumerate vb 1 : to determine the number of : count 2 : list
Source: NMW


excise n a tax on the manufacture, sale, or consumption of goods
within a country Source: NMW

Ex post facto

ex post facto adj. Formulated, enacted, or operating retroactively.
[Med Lat., from what is done afterwards] Source:

In U.S. Constitutional Law, the definition of what is ex post facto is more
limited. The first definition of what exactly constitutes an ex post facto law
is found in Calder v Bull (3 US 386 [1798]), in the opinion of Justice

1st. Every law that makes an action done before the passing of the
law, and which was innocent when done, criminal; and punishes such action. 2d.
Every law that aggravates a crime, or makes it greater than it was, when
committed. 3d. Every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater
punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed. 4th. Every law
that alters the legal rules of evidence, and receives less, or different,
testimony, than the law required at the time of the commission of the offense,
in order to convict the offender.

Habeas Corpus

habeas corpus n. Law A writ issued to bring a party before a court to
prevent unlawful restraint. [<Med. Lat., you should have the body] Source: AHD

The basic premise behind habeas corpus is that you cannot be held against
your will without just cause. To put it another way, you cannot be jailed if
there are no charges against you. If you are being held, and you demand it, the
courts must issue a writ of habeas corpus, which forces those holding you to
answer as to why. If there is no good or compelling reason, the court must set
you free. It is important to note that of all the civil liberties we take for
granted today as a part of the Bill of Rights, the importance of habeas corpus
is illustrated by the fact that it was the sole liberty thought important
enough to be included in the original text of the Constitution.


impartial adj. Not partial or biased; unprejudiced. Source: AHD


Impeachment, in the U.S. and Great Britain, proceeding by a legislature for the
removal from office of a public official charged with misconduct in office.
Impeachment comprises both the act of formulating the accusation and the
resulting trial of the charges; it is frequently but erroneously taken to mean
only the removal from office of an accused public official. An impeachment
trial may result in either an acquittal or in a verdict of guilty. In the
latter case the impeached official is removed from office; if the charges
warrant such action, the official is also remanded to the proper authorities
for trial before a court. Source: FWE


impost n tax, duty Source: NMW


infringe vb [Latin infringere] 1: violate, transgress 2:
encroach, trespass Source: NMW

In the context of the Constitution, phrases like “shall not be infringed,”
“shall make no law,” and “shall not be violated” sound pretty unbendable, but
the Supreme Court has ruled that some laws can, in fact, encroach on
these phrases. For example, though there is freedom of speech, you cannot
slander someone; though you can own a pistol, you cannot own a nuclear


jurisdiction n the power, right, or authority to interpret and apply
the law : the limits or territory within which authority may be exercised Source: NMW

Letter of Marque

Archaic. A letter of marque was issued by a nation to a privateer or mercenary
to act on the behalf of that nation for the purpose of retaliating against
another nation for some wrong, such as a border incursion or seizure.

Nobility, Title of

Nobility is technically a station in society that is had simply by being born
into the right family. The class of persons, well-characterized by the
aristocracy of Great Britain, were considered to be higher in status and power
because of the family name. A title of nobility indicated that status, where a
person was a king, queen, prince, princess, count, countess, duke, duchess,
baron, or baroness; these titles were granted by the monarch at some point in
the family history and passed from parent to child. The Framers wished to
ensure that no such system of heredity developed in the United States and
specifically prohibited any state or the federal government from granting any
title of nobility. Suggested by: Ian (board


ordain v. 2. To order by or as if by decree. [<Lat.
ordinaire, to organize] Source: AHD

Poll Tax

A poll tax has had two historical meanings. The older is that of a fee that had
to be paid to satisfy taxpayer requirements in voting laws. In some places,
only people who could demonstrate a financial tie to a community were permitted
to vote in that community. For those who did not otherwise own property or pay
taxes, this sort of poll tax was sufficient to allow voting. More recently,
however, a poll tax is a tax that must be paid by anyone wishing to cast a
vote. Poll taxes of this sort were generally low, perhaps a dollar or two, but
high enough to make voting uneconomical for poor people. The 24th Amendment bars both of these types of poll

Post road

post road n a road over which mail is carried Source: NMW


posterity n. 1. Future generations. 2. All of a person’s descendants.
[<Lat. posteritas.] Source: AHD

Pro tempore

pro tempore adv. For the time being; temporarily. Also: Pro tem. Source: AHD


quarter vb. to provide with shelter Source:


quorum n. the number of members required to be present for business to
be legally conducted Source: NMW


redress v. 1. To set right, remedy or rectify. 2. To make amends for.
n. 1. Satisfaction for wrong done; reparation. 2. Correction.
[<OFr. redresser.] Source: AHD


Archaic. An act taken by a nation, short of war, to gain redress for an action
taken against that nation. For example, seizing a ship in retaliation for a
seized ship.


republic n 1 : a government having a chief of state
who is not a monarch and is usually a president; also : a nation or other
political unit having such a government 2 : a government in
which supreme power is held by the citizens entitled to vote and is exercised
by elected officers and representatives governing according to law; also : a
nation or other political unit having such a form of government Source: NMW

In the context of the United States, both definitions apply.


suffrage n. 1. A vote. 2. The right or privilege of voting; franchise.
Source: AHD


treason n the offense of attempting to overthrow the government of
one’s country or of assisting its enemies in war Source:


welfare n. 1. health, happiness, or prosperity; well-being. [<ME
wel faren, to fare well] Source: AHD

Welfare in today’s context also means organized efforts on the part of
public or private organizations to benefit the poor, or simply public
assistance. This is not the meaning of the word as used in the