But how is one to determine this “original public meaning”? One place to begin is a law dictionary in use at the time, such as The Law-Dictionary: Explaining the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the English Law; Defining and Interpreting the Terms or Words of Art; and Comprising Copious Information on the Subjects of Law, Trade, and Government, compiled by Giles Jacob, and the most popular legal dictionary of the era. According to Jacob’s tome, a grant—which he defined only as a noun—is a “conveyance in writing of incorporeal things.” And what, in turn, is a conveyance? It is “a deed which passes or conveys land from one man to another.”
Note: “from one man to another.”
Thus, to the extent that the most popular contemporaneous law dictionary is valuable in understanding what ordinary speakers of the founding era meant by “granting,” it seems clear that they probably had in mind an interpersonal transfer.
Now, dictionaries are not the only available evidence of a term’s meaning at a particular historical moment. We have books, newspapers, and other printed matter. And people today are fortunate to have an easy way to search huge amounts of such material in the form of the Google Books Ngram Viewer. This extraordinary bit of technology allows a user to pick a beginning and an end date and request a calculation of the frequency with which words and phrases appear in all of Google’s scanned written material from that time period. This tool can reveal, for example, that the word texting got almost no use across the 20th century until 1997, when, for reasons everyone can infer, it began to skyrocket.
Jeffrey Crouch: Our Founders didn’t intend for pardons to work like this
According to the Ngram Viewer, did English speakers in the late 18th century understand the verb grant to have a reflexive meaning? In their world, could you grant something to yourself? If you could, evidence of that in the form of phrases such as grants himself and grants herself and grant themselves and grant myself and grant yourself should appear throughout the Ngram Viewer’s corpus.
But, in the time period from 1750 to 1800, essentially none of these appears. Transitive uses of the verb—“grant me,” “grant him,” “grant her,” “grant us,” “grant you,” and the like, where the person receiving the grant is different from the person doing the granting—are all common. But reflexive uses, where the person doing the granting is also the person on the receiving end? All but nonexistent. In most instances where a phrase like grant myself does pop up, it’s a different meaning of grant entirely, as in John Knox’s 1790 book, History of the Reformation of Religion in the Realm of Scotland, in which the word means something like “acknowledge”: “And when you let me see the contrary, I shall grant myself to be deceived in that point.”