“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde is not just one of the most extraordinary novels ever written, but an allegory of the history of the U.S. Constitution.
In the novel, Basil Hallward paints a portrait of a beautiful and innocent young man, Dorian Gray. On seeing the finished product, Dorian makes a wish that he will stay forever as he is and that the portrait would age instead.
The wish comes true, to the ruin of Dorian Gray’s soul. The novel’s conceit is that a person’s face will necessarily reflect his inner soul. A corrupt soul will invariably be visible in the person’s face, and a debauched and depraved lifestyle will as well.
Basil believes this, and accordingly, no matter what he hears of Dorian’s lifestyle, he cannot believe it true. If the stories were true, he believes, the sins would surely be reflected in his face. Yet, 20 years after the portrait was painted, Dorian’s face is as innocent as it was the day the painting was finished.
The painting, in contrast, changes greatly, reflecting Dorian’s true self.
At first, the changes are slight. Dorian Gray seduces and then abandons a young woman, who commits suicide as a result. Dorian looks at the painting: “The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.” But his own face shows nothing.
No matter what Dorian does, he still appears as young and innocent as ever. But, as his sins compound, the painting becomes monstrous. It has the eyes of a devil.
Similarly, the Constitution has stayed much the same over the years, but its interpretation has grown as hideous as the picture of Dorian Gray.
As originally adopted, the Constitution really was an unfinished painting. Only with the conclusion of the Civil War, and the enactment of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteeing equal rights to all, did the Constitution become a finished product.
In creating the Constitution, the founders expected it to change over time and provided procedures for amending it. They expected the Constitution to change in this manner, just as a man ages. But they did not expect the limits they placed on state power to be excised by mere judicial fiat.
Now it has been 40 years since it was last amended and it reads very much as it did 140 years ago.
Yet its interpretation grows more hideous.
As in the novel, the change began almost immediately. The text of the Privileges or Immunities Clause has not changed since 1868 and still prohibits the states from creating monopolies and prohibiting competition with them. But the Supreme Court effectively excised the Privileges or Immunities Clause from its text in The Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873).
We can read the Constitution, just as the characters in Wilde’s novel can look at Dorian’s face, and it still appears beautiful. Only by reading The Slaughterhouse Cases can we see the reality.
Likewise, the Constitution’s text still limits Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause to regulation of interstate commerce. Only by reading Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942), can one discern that the clause now allows criminalization of wholly intrastate activity.
The text of the Takings Clause still says private property can only be taken for public use. But Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 409 (2005), says it can be taken and given to another private party. The Takings Clause has been murdered, just as Dorian eventually murdered Basil.
Without question, the text of the Constitution itself is still beautiful, like Dorian’s face. But the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it is as monstrous as The Picture of Dorian Gray.