Jefferson and Venerating the Constitution

Jefferson

Given that a frequent topic of discussion is the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the issue of original intent.

As such, a few observations for discussion.

First, here’s Jefferson in a letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.

He went on to suggest (as he had, without a specific number of years to Madison back in 1789), an expiration date for constitutions:

Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs. Let us, as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils. And lastly, let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be, nature herself indicates. By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.

Granted, Jefferson was just one of the Founders, and not a Framer (i.e., didn’t participate in the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia).  Still, hardly a ringing endorsement of originialism.  There is also an irony is going back to the Founders to argue that original intent may not be all its cracked up to be.  Although while on the general topic, I would note that Madison wasn’t a fan of venerating the views of the Foundering generation either.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Isn’t much of the discussion surrounding this little more than a bucket of red herrings? The US Constitution allows for its amendment in a clear and unambiguous way. Or is it being suggested that a Year 0 approach, at whatever interval, is preferable to an incremental approach to change?

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Well and good. However, given a choice between the views of the Founders and those of the present crop of leaders almost all of whom regardless of party are apparatchiks with little other knowledge or expertise I think I’d probably choose the Founders.

  3. He was suggesting a Year 0 approach. He is also noting in one of the quotes above that what the writers of a document thought may not have been the way things worked.

  4. Well and good. However, given a choice between the views of the Founders and those of the present crop of leaders almost all of whom regardless of party are apparatchiks with little other knowledge or expertise I think I’d probably choose the Founders.

    But, of course, part of the point is that isn’t the choice we are given. We are given a combination–what the Founders wrote and the way it has been interpreted and as it has evolved over time.

    As quoted above:

    But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I have no objection to the art of government keeping up with the times. My complaint is when it must keep up with the New York Times. Or the Washington Times for that matter.

  6. My complaint is when it must keep up with the New York Times. Or the Washington Times for that matter.

    All well and good. But in fairness, I never advocated either.

  7. Billy says:

    Great post. As a follow-up you may find this an interesting read as well:

    Original Intent in the First Congress, 71 Mo. L. Rev. 687 (2006).

  8. sam says:

    @Dave

    I have no objection to the art of government keeping up with the times. My complaint is when it must keep up with the New York Times. Or the Washington Times for that matter.

    Reminds me of Karl Krause:

    “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.”