Thomas Jefferson on Constitutions

JeffersonTired of hearing about “muh konstitushion” in every discussion from the United States to Ukraine?

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.

— A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval Monticello, 1816

On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.

— Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789

Most of the constitutions of the world are, by a Jeffersonian standard, overdue. They have expired. No one alive today agreed, signed nor participated in their creation. They do not bind you, nor do they give authority to a government.

Lysander Spooner Social ContractAs Lysander Spooner put it at the very beginning of No Treason:

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. and the constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them.

The older the constitution the less relevance it has. How many issues do the constitutions of the world fail to address? Men who lived centuries ago were unable to account for the complexities of the Internet, email and social networks. They had little concept of mental illness and rehabilitative justice. The pinnacle of technology was a musket. Now we have consumer grade drones. Sexual taboos were untouched. Religion was ubiquitous. Communities were homogeneous.

They fail to, as Jefferson put it, keep pace with the times.

Many constitutions have some procedure for amendment, but this is insufficient. When a significant portion of a constitution is lacking, why amend it? It is best to start over. And, like Spooner said, a constitution cannot represent you except as a contract. And for this you must participate. You must give your explicit consent. If you do not participate — if you have not helped to create the constitution — it is a tyranny. A tyranny of dead men who have decided who will rule and who will obey.


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