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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

16. Amending the Constitution

No work of man is perfect. It is inevitable that, in the course of time, the imperfections of a written Constitution will become apparent. Moreover, the passage of time will bring changes in society which a Constitution must accommodate if it is to remain suitable for the nation. It was imperative, therefore, that a practicable means of amending the Constitution be provided.

"Whatever be the Constitution, great care must be taken to provide a mode of amendment when experience or change of circumstances shall have manifested that any part of it is unadapted to the good of the nation. In some of our States it requires a new authority from the whole people, acting by their representatives, chosen for this express purpose, and assembled in convention. This is found too difficult for remedying the imperfections which experience develops from time to time in an organization of the first impression. A greater facility of ammendment is certainly requisite to maintain it in a course of action accommodated to the times and changes through which we are ever passing." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:488

"Time and changes in the condition and constitution of society may require occasional and corresponding modifications." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825. ME 16:113

"Nothing is more likely than that [the] enumeration of powers is defective. This is the ordinary case of all human works. Let us then go on perfecting it by adding by way of amendment to the Constitution those powers which time and trial show are still wanting." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803. ME 10:419

"Though we may say with confidence, that the worst of the American constitutions is better than the best which ever existed before in any other country, and that they are wonderfully perfect for a first essay, yet every human essay must have defects. It will remain, therefore, to those now coming on the stage of public affairs, to perfect what has been so well begun by those going off it." --Thomas Jefferson to T. M. Randolph, Jr., 1787. ME 6:165

"We must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step. We must be contented with the ground which [the new] Constitution will gain for us, and hope that a favorable moment will come for correcting what is amiss in it." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Moustier, 1788. ME 7:13

"To secure the ground we gain, and gain what more we can, is, I think, the wisest course." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mason, 1790. ME 8:35

"Our government wanted bracing. Still, we must take care not to run from one extreme to another; not to brace too high." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788. ME 7:81

"This peaceable and legitimate resource [i.e., amendment], to which we are in the habit of implicit obedience, superseding all appeal to force and being always within our reach, shows a precious principle of self-preservation in our composition, till a change of circumstances shall take place, which is not within prospect at any definite period." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1801. ME 10:230

16.1 The Right to Change a Constitution

"We have always a right to correct ancient errors and to establish what is more conformable to reason and convenience." -- Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1801. FE 8:82

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:41

"[The European] 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... avail ourselves of our reason and experience to correct the crude essays of our first and unexperienced although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:41

"[Algernon Sidney wrote in Discourses Concerning Government, Sect. II, Par 13,] 'All human constitutions are subject to corruption and must perish unless they are timely renewed and reduced to their first principles.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"I have found here [in America] a philosophic revolution, philosophically effected." --Thomas Jefferson to Comtesse d'Houdetot, 1790. ME 8:15

"Happy 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 to restore their constitutions." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787. ME 6:295, Papers 12:113

"The European governments have resisted reformation until the people, seeing no other resource, undertake it themselves by force, their only weapon, and work it out through blood, desolation and long-continued anarchy. Here it will be by large fragments breaking off, and refusing re-union but on condition of amendment, or perhaps permanently." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert J. Garnett, 1824. ME 16:15

"A schism in our Union... would be an incurable evil, because near friends falling out, never re-unite cordially; whereas, all of us going together, we shall be sure to cure the evils of our new Constitution, before they do great harm." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, 1788. ME 6:426

"Happy for us that abuses have not yet become patrimonies, and that every description of interest is in favor of rational and moderate government. That we are yet able to send our wise and good men together to talk over our form of government, discuss its weaknesses and establish its remedies with the same sang-froid as they would a subject of agriculture." --Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Izard, 1788. ME 7:72, Papers 13:373

"The example of changing a constitution by assembling the wise men of the State instead of assembling armies will be worth as much to the world as the former examples we had given them." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:322

16.2 Change is the Choice of the Living

"I willingly acquiesce in the institutions of my country, perfect or imperfect, and think it a duty to leave their modifications to those who are to live under them and are to participate of the good or evil they may produce. The present generation has the same right of self-government which the past one has exercised for itself." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824. ME 16:29

"My wish is to offend nobody; to leave to those who are to live under it, the settlement of their own constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:70

"We have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable. But still, in their present state, we consider them not otherwise changeable than by the authority of the people on a special election of representatives for that purpose expressly. They are until then the lex legum." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:47

"Our children will be as wise as we are and will establish in the fulness of time those things not yet ripe for establishment." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:394

"The generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made and for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands and thousands of years. If there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the [upcoming] generation. But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age and this country." --Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, 1799.

16.3 Experience Dictates Change

"The precept... is wise which directs us to try all things and hold fast that which is good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Drayton, 1788. ME 6:414

"I am a friend to the reformation generally of whatever can be made better." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wilson, 1813. ME 13:349

"Let us go on perfecting the Constitution by adding, by way of amendment, those forms which time and trial show are still wanting." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803. ME 9:419

"It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Cherokee Nation, 1806. ME 19:149

"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. 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." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:40

"Those who [advocate] reformation of institutions pari passu with the progress of science [maintain] that no definite limits [can] be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, [deny] improvement and [advocate] steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they [represent] as the consummation of wisdom and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:254

"I am not afraid of new inventions or improvements, nor bigoted to the practices of our forefathers. It is that bigotry which keeps the Indians in a state of barbarism in the midst of the arts [and] would have kept us in the same state even now." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Fulton, 1810. ME 12:380

"Nature and reason, as well as all our constitutions, condemn retrospective conditions as mere acts of power against right." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:380

"The real friends of the Constitution in its federal form, if they wish it to be immortal, should be attentive, by amendments, to make it keep pace with the advance of the age in science and experience. Instead of this, the European governments have resisted reformation until the people, seeing no other resource, undertake it themselves by force, their only weapon, and work it out through blood, desolation and long-continued anarchy." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert J. Garnett, 1824. ME 16:15

"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 accomodate 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." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:40

16.4 The Slow Process of Amendment

"It will be said it is easier to find faults than to amend them. I do not think their amendment so difficult as is pretended. Only lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:35

"I am sorry [the federal convention] 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." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1787. ME 6:289

"There is a snail-paced gait for the advance of new ideas on the general mind under which we must acquiesce. A forty years' experience of popular assemblies has taught me that you must give them time for every step you take. If too hard pushed, they balk, and the machine retrogrades." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1807. ME 11:400

"Governments... are always in their stock of information a century or two behind the intelligent part of mankind, and... have interests against touching ancient institutions." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Patterson, 1811. ME 13:87

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:22

16.5 The Earth Belongs to the Living

"The idea that institutions established for the use of the nation cannot be touched nor modified even to make them answer their end because of rights gratuitously supposed in those employed to manage them in trust for the public, may perhaps be a salutary provision against the abuses of a monarch but is most absurd against the nation itself. Yet our lawyers and priests generally inculcate this doctrine and suppose that preceding generations held the earth more freely than we do, had a right to impose laws on us unalterable by ourselves, and that we in like manner can make laws and impose burdens on future generations which they will have no right to alter; in fine, that the earth belongs to the dead and not the living." --Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer, 1816. ME 15:46

"I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident: 'That the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;' that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it... We seem not to have perceived that by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:454

"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 unendowed with will." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

"The generations of men may be considered as bodies or corporations. Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation free and unencumbered and so on successively from one generation to another forever. 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." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:270

"These are axioms so self-evident that no explanation can make them plainer; for he is not to be reasoned with who says that non-existence can control existence, or that nothing can move something. They are axioms also pregnant with salutary consequences." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Earle, 1823. ME 15:470

"Forty years [after a] Constitution... was formed,... two-thirds of the adults then living are... 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 can not own something. Where there is no substance, there can be no accident [i.e., attribute]." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. (*) ME 15:42

"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 unalienable rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

"The laws of civil society indeed for the encouragement of industry, give the property of the parent to his family on his death, and in most civilized countries permit him even to give it, by testament, to whom he pleases. And it is also found more convenient to suffer the laws of our predecessors to stand on our implied assent, as if positively re-enacted, until the existing majority positively repeals them. But this does not lessen the right of that majority to repeal whenever a change of circumstances or of will calls for it. Habit alone confounds what is civil practice with natural right." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Earle, 1823. ME 15:470

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:42

"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right. It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to nineteen years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459

"This principle, that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,... will exclude... the ruinous and contagious errors... which have armed despots with means which nature does not sanction, for binding in chains their fellow-men." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:460

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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