On a visit last year to Maryland, I had the opportunity to revisit (or visit) some of the monuments around Washington, DC. While my seven-year-old happily snapped pictures to show her class, I read the inscriptions on the walls. Several, in the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, struck me as particularly apposite.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval dated 12 July 1816, wrote:
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But 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 and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to 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.
Take that, SCOTUS! So much for “original intent”: the interpretation of our laws (and our standards) must be consistent with our time, not Jefferson’s. (Anybody want to argue that Jefferson couldn’t know the framers’ intent far better than anyone on today’s Supreme Court?)
For just one clear example, consider Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” All men? Our laws recognize (even if some of our people do not) that this includes not only white men, but women, too, and both genders in rainbow hues: in a word, all humankind. The delivery on that promise, though considerably advanced from two centuries ago, still has not been fulfilled: though all men are created equal, it is still only citizens who can claim the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution — a situation that has, sadly, deteriorated substantially since 2001.
Moving around the Tidal Basin to the FDR Memorial, I found that the words of Franklin Roosevelt are as true today as they were seventy-odd years ago:
No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.
— Second Fireside Chat on Government and Modern Capitalism, September 30, 1934.
We might update this for today: underemployment is as bad as unemployment, surely; and the frenzy for “outsourcing” and shipping jobs overseas might be good for the corporate bottom line, but only if the displaced employees (and their counterparts at other companies) can still afford the products and services they once produced themselves.
I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.
— Fireside Chat on Economic Conditions, April 14, 1938
This is the essence of “good government,” isn’t it? Remembering, always, that you are a public servant and answerable to the people of the United States; too often, those in high office invert the relationship, believing instead that the people are answerable to them.
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One thought on “Nation Building”
Jefferson’s argument is actually two-fold. Changes in the Constitution itself are needed to keep up with progress, however, these changes should not be frequent.
The reference made is actually in support of the process for Constitutional Amendments, not Judicial Review (what we refer to today as legislating from the bench). When this letter was written Marbury v. Madison was only 13 years old, and already Jefferson could see the dangers of the Judicial Review precedent. A “slippery slope” one might say from the Marbury decision to the actions of our current Supreme Court.
As Jefferson’s argument suggests, once an Amendment to the Constitution is made, then the original intent of the document is changed. By the frequent changes line, he means that we should not legislate from the bench. That legislating should be done in the legislative branch. Changes to the Constitution should be allowed; but should be a difficult process, so the Constitution is not changed too frequently.
I agree with Jefferson, the document’s meaning should not be changed, except by the act of a Constitutional Amendment. The handing down of decisions suggesting that the Constitution implies certain things is a power grab by the Supreme Court. The Court has taken the power to limit government away from the people and it’s Congress.
The most blatant violator of Jefferson’s concept was the Warren Court. Objectives achieved by the Warren court were (are) both admirable and necessary. The means by which they were achieved were completely inappropriate and Constitutionally irresponsible. Constitutional Amendments and subsequent laws should have been drafted by the Congress to achieve these same objectives. The same should be done today.
Marbury v. Madison