Jefferson on the Constitution

Joseph Ellis, in his book The Quartet¬†argues that many of our founding fathers who actively participated in bringing us our constitution were not focused on creating an ever binding document that would hold in place the nation’s laws forever. They sought, Ellis argues, to build a constitution that would serve as a guiding document for the political thought and ideals of the time. They understood that the Constitution would have to change, and while thy hoped that it would be endearing enough to be well respected and to not be scrapped within ten years, they did not believe the Constitution to be beyond the scope of political discussion and change.

 

This sentiment is capture by Thomas Jefferson, who was not active in the process of writing the constitution and developing its ideas since he was in France during the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

 

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to 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…. 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 discovered…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 as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.”

 

In my mind, the most clear modern example of what Jefferson described in the quote above is the debate in our country over the Second Amendment. In 1787 our founding fathers found it important enough for the nation to be able to be build a militia when needed and for citizens to be able to bear arms to for their protection from tyrannical governments both internal and external to the United States. But the firearms of the Revolution were unlike the weapons of today’s world. The original intent doctrine suggests that we should not limit people’s ability to own and use firearms. This seems very clear with the inclusion of the the Second Amendment, but it also feels to me, that we are forcing the nation to wear its boyhood jacket when we force the modern problems with guns into the framework of the Second Amendment. It is clear that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment with handguns in mind. The guns of the time were bulky, slow to reload, and inaccurate. A modern handgun is easily concealable, can be fired rapidly, and is deadly accurate.

 

Jefferson, it appears based on this quote from the end of his life, would argue that the Second Amendment needed to change, that there was not a superhuman view of firearms and democratic preservation written into the Constitution to which we should affix ourselves today. The technology of the world has advanced in unpredictable ways since 1787, and Jefferson would argue that our institutions for governing the nation should change as well.

Paradoxes Within Our Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is over 230 years old. With many amendments added through the years, and with new interpretations of the Constitution, our country is still guided by a founding document written in 1787. What has made this document so enduring, argues Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet, is not that it was written with the divine influence of providence or that it held unique support among men, but that it understood and adapted a paradoxical framework about government. Writing on our founders and the endurance of the constitution Ellis states,

 

“It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over the heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

 

The ideas of our Constitution were not universally accepted and clear to everyone at the time of its adoption, and even today the paradox of our constitution is not well understood. Government does not rely on complete power and authority in the United States. A leading political figure, an agency, and the legitimacy of our government only persist because they can react (at least to some extent) to the popular demands of our citizens. At the same time, we have a slow process that in recent years seems to frequently grind to a gridlocked halt when a minority opposes the actions of a popular majority. This limits the ability of government or popular majority to¬† run roughshod over the rights and liberties of a minority. While politically frustrating, this limitation of the majorities power, and the the divestiture of the majority’s power in a politically elected representative or government creates a system of government that is reactive to its citizens and simultaneously constrained from tyrannical tendencies. It may not be perfect and often does not work as well as we would hope, but through time it has evolved to allow citizens to enjoy liberty and has moved in a direction where minority factions have been preserved and protected (thought often times not well) and gained greater influence over time.