Thomas Jefferson, Progressive

Thomas Jefferson is considered to be one of the leading Founding Fathers of the United States. Not one of the Framers, however — he was in France during the Philadelphia convention in which the Constitution was drafted, and other than some correspondence with James Madison had no role in its creation or ratification.

At the end of his life, 40 years after the creation of the Constitution, Jefferson was asked to lend his hand in a political campaign. In this excerpt from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, Jefferson discusses his belief that the Constitution should be re-drafted “every nineteen or twenty years” in order to “keep pace with the times” and provide “progressive accommodation to progressive improvements” to society.

Letter to Samuel Kercheval

This excerpt has no omissions or edits within the text, but I did add paragraph breaks — as writers of the time tended toward creating “walls of text” that makes modern reading more difficult. I did highlight a couple of phrases.

Toward the end of the long letter that spanned public debt and Constitutional amendments, Jefferson wrote:

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. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood. Their monarchs, instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms.

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.

It is now forty years since the constitution of Virginia was formed. The same tables inform us, that, within that period, two-thirds of the adults then living are now dead. Have then the remaining third, even if they had the wish, the right to hold in obedience to their will, and to laws heretofore made by them, the other two-thirds, who, with themselves, compose the present mass of adults? If they have not, who has? The dead? But the dead have no rights. They are nothing; and nothing cannot own something. Where there is no substance, there can be no accident.

This corporeal globe, and everything upon it, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants, during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority. That majority, then, has a right to depute representatives to a convention, and to make the constitution what they think will be the best for themselves. But how collect their voice? This is the real difficulty. If invited by private authority, or county or district meetings, these divisions are so large that few will attend; and their voice will be imperfectly, or falsely pronounced.

Here, then, would be one of the advantages of the ward divisions I have proposed. The mayor of every ward, on a question like the present, would call his ward together, take the simple yea or nay of its members, convey these to the county court, who would hand on those of all its wards to the proper general authority; and the voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society.

If this avenue be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation, again; and so on forever.

Jefferson favored not just Constitutional amendments, but essentially starting from scratch to form a new Constitution for each generation. He had actually said something like this early on, at the time of its adoption. Perhaps the fact that he had not participated in the first one influenced this thinking.

What Jefferson Saw and Did

I am aware of some of the things he witnessed in those decades that would have reinforced his opinion that the Constitution needed to be completely redone. For example:

  • He saw his old nemesis Alexander Hamilton, a leading supporter of the Constitution, immediately break with it in the formation of a national bank.
  • He saw his old friend James Madison fiercely oppose the creation of this bank, but later as president cause its replacement to be created after the original charter had expired.
  • Jefferson saw the Alien and Sedition Acts created by the Federalists, as a direct attack on the free speech and freedom of the press that had just been added to the Constitution.
  • He saw Chief Justice Marshall rule that the Supreme Court was the only entity with the power to decide Constitutionality — and he made this decision in a case revolving around Marshall’s own role as Secretary of State in an attack on Jefferson just before Marshall was appointed Chief Justice by Jefferson’s enemy John Adams. The Marbury v Madison case is still used as precedent to this day.
  • Jefferson was witness to punitive tariffs placed upon Southern states, and (while Jefferson was vice president) anonymously wrote with Madison the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which demanded that those states nullify the tariffs.
  • And Jefferson, as much as he demanded sticking to the Constitution, immediately broke with it in order to approve the Louisiana Purchase and to pursue war against the Barbary jihadists without a Congressional Declaration of War.

With all of this, Jefferson’s relationship with the Constitution as it was ratified in 1789 was … complex. So, by the 1820s, he was in favor of starting over. While I support a number of amendments to clarify those parts of the Constitution that have been damaged by judicial usurpations, I am not in favor of a scrap-and-start-over approach at all.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle