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Quotations - Constitution

by Thomas Jefferson



CONSTITUTION (AS A COMPACT)

When two parties make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it.

(Letter to Edward Carrington, Paris, August 4, 1787). THE POLITICAL WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 133 (Dumbauld Ed. 1955).

CONSTITUTION (PURPOSE OF)

(I)n questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter endowed with will...Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

(Letter to John Cartwright, Monticello, June 5, 1824). THOMAS JEFFERSON ON DEMOCRACY 162 (S. Padover Ed. 1953).

CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787

I am sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members. Nothing can justify this example but the innocence of their intentions and ignorance of the value of public discussions. I have no doubt that all their other measures will be good and wise. It is really an assembly of demigods.

(Letter to John Adams, Paris, August 30, 1787). THE POLITICAL WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 136 (Dumbauld Ed. 1955).

CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION

Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.

(Letter of September 7, 1803 to Wilson Cary Nicholas).

CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION

No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.

(Letter to James Madison, 1789). THOMAS JEFFERSON ON DEMOCRACY 153 (S. Padover Ed. 1953).

The functionaries of public power rarely strengthen in their dispositions to abridge it, and an unorganized call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail against an organized opposition to it. We are always told that things are going on well; Why change them? 'Chi sta bene, no si mueve,' said the Italian, 'let him who stands well, stand still.' This is true; and I verily believe they would go on well with us under an absolute monarch, while our present character remains, of order, industry and love of peace, and restrained as he would be, by the proper spirit of the people.

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 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; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading; and this they would themselves say, were they to rise from the dead...Laws and institutions must go hand and hand with the progress of the human mind.

(Letter to S. Kercheval, 1816). THOMAS JEFFERSON ON DEMOCRACY 67 (S. Padover Ed. 1953).

The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature's law...We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country.

(Letter to J.W. Eppes, 1813). THOMAS JEFFERSON ON DEMOCRACY 15 (S. Padover Ed. 1953).

A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.

(Letter to J. Cartwright, 1824). THOMAS JEFFERSON ON DEMOCRACY 68 (S. Padover Ed. 1953).

Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most productive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that it received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every 19 or 20 years, should be provided in the constitution, so that it may be handed on, with periodic repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.

Happily for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or restore their constitutions.