Friday, January 7, 2011

Jefferson Not a Fan of Fetishists Either

My take on the recent trend of constitution worship is this: our constitution deserves the utmost respect and reverence. So long as we don't turn that into a fetish. [BTW, that term had already sprung independently to mind before I saw Alex Altman's rant at Time.] Turns out someone much wiser than me agrees. Here's Thomas Jefferson:
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 men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment..."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. 

None of us ought to give an inch when a precious opponent wraps himself in a very simple and convenient version of what he says the constitution means. We're all stuck keeping pace with the times. And that means that when the constitution is broad and vague, it's up to all the folks involved in our constitutional processes to make a good faith effort to figure out how it applies.

Like it or not, the constitution is not a cookbook. Protecting and extending the magnificent ideals embodied in our constitution into our future is a much more difficult and serious matter than "Two cups of liberty, a teaspoon of free speech, 3 tablespoons of the right to bear arms. 4 cups of equal protection.... ."

We're all responsible for doing the hard work. grasping the details, appreciating the fine balances needed when ideals conflict, and moving forward as best we can. This was made quite obvious to me as a child in school. It's not rocket science. But even though it's clear and obvious, it's not easy. Tough shit.


  1. Well said! I'm about to subscribe. I'm also cranky and I only pay attention part of the time.

  2. Good quote from Jefferson

  3. Thanks for the visits, guys. Where'd you wander by from?

  4. Care to place that Jefferson quote in context? He was speaking generally on the government, and in that section specifically of the reasons for having the amendment process in the Constitution. He was certainly NOT supporting the stretching out of shape of the meanings of the Constitution by legislators and judges to "keep pace the times." Quite the opposite.

    For real fun, read the section on public debt and taxation.

  5. Tully - How could this statement by Jefferson be taken out of context? Especially in the manner in which you suggest? It stands on its own merit, no further context is necessary. Jefferson was not a careless man in his use of written language.

    "As that [progress of the human mind] 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."

  6. I see your point,m and that;s worth taking into consideration.

    But surely you can;t claim that because he's speaking generally, then it can't be applied specifically?

    I'm not saying that this quote grants permission to stretch the meaning of words to whatever you want. That's moronic.

    All I am saying is that Jefferson meant what he said. Either he though institutions needed to keep pace as the world evolved, or he didn't.

    And he did.

  7. While it may stand well as a general statement, it loses meaning when taken out of context. He meant what he said in a specific context. Placing it into a different context actively changes the meaning -- that's the trouble with using any quote in isolation from its origins. Compare and contrast with, say, this other Jefferson quote:

    "A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference."*

    Was he "fetishizing" the Bill of Rights there? You bet! What I'm saying is that Jefferson's specific meaning in the quote you used was that the Constitution itself had to be amendable to keep up with changing times, not that it should be subject to some evolving re-interpretation ala the "living Constitution" doctrine of creative judicial interpretation ... or inference.

    Point being that the quote has specific meaning, and losing that by taking it as a general statement changes that meaning.

    For a really fun in-context take on Jefferson, read his letters from the time of the Conctitutional Convention, which include the "Tree of Liberty" letter.

    [*: Letter to James Madison 20 Dec. 1787]

  8. If I wasn't clear, let me state that I see your point. Jefferson was talking about amendments as a specific mechanism for allowing the constitution to keep pace with changing times.

    To my knowledge, he didn't claim that this was the sole reasonable method.

    His general unqualified statement is that institutions must advance to keep pace with the times as our culture and understanding evolve.

    So, obviously he recognizes the need. He did not, as you point out, explicitly approve the mechanism that I've related his quote to. Cheerfully agreed.