Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Quote of the day: on avoiding making an idol of constitutions

"Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Coventant -- too sacred to be touched."

- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, quoted in The Essential Wisdom fo the Founding Fathers, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi (Fall River:  2009), pg. 47.

11 comments:

Pinky said...

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Thankfully, some of us don't.
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Do you think maybe that's why we're called progressive?
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Information, and culture changes over time, so we must consider what is needed to protect and provide the best environment or society for citizens. Sometimes, that means we need to reconsider the historical situadedness and try to return to the principles of the past. And we also must consider issues before society today that might call for change.

So, Pinky I don't think that progressivism or conservatism is really the answer for the best interests of society. We can't dismiss history without undermining our founding principles and we can't dismiss needs for social change without undermining our values.

The nation-state and the principle of law is important to maintain definition, boundaries and distinction between the citizen and non-citizen. Citizens also need to affirm the principles of liberty to affirm our values of liberty and justice for all citizens, as well!!!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, I think the quote as posted may leave a false impression. Jefferson continues:

"They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom morethan human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment..."

Our constitution [not constitutions generally, as the text reads here] is amendable. Amended 27 times, I make it.

Jefferson is not urging any straying from the Constitution here, only the free exercise of the amendment process. In another spot, Jefferson [in reference to John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts] urges tying such power-mad men down "with the chains of the Constitution."

For the record, I put Jefferson pretty low on the list of Constitutional authorities just on general principles, since unlike the rest of the "key" Founders [and dozens more non-key ones], he had little or nothing to do with it as he was in France at the time.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, Tom, as Jefferson wrote the DOI, he was much more "progressive" in that sense, as he believed according the the DOI in a universal (having no boundaries), while our Constitution describes our national identity.

And national identities are defined by their Constitutions, at least in free societies...

Tom Van Dyke said...

Angie, some of the opposition to the Bill of Rights was that in enumerating certain rights [free exercise of religion, jury trial, no unreasonable searches, etc.], the unenumerated, "universal" ones might be held not to exist.

Therefore the 9th Amendment

The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

which upholds the view of universal and unalienable rights in the D of I.

As for the Constitution defining our "national identity," true as far as that goes. But part of our "national identity" is federalism, where the "general" [national] gov't has its well-defined, enumerated sphere, and the states have sovereignty over their sphere.

Hence, the 10th Amendment

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Which settled the federalism question once and for all.

Heh heh. ;-)

Pinky said...

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It's easy for me to imagine the drawn out and heated discussions about self government our Founding Fathers had during those embryonic days.
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While T.J. wasn't involved in the actual penning of the Constitution, I'm sure his input was right up there with the entire group and in their unity.
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It makes me think of Hegel's dialectical process.
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Daniel said...

Pinky said...
"While T.J. wasn't involved in the actual penning of the Constitution, I'm sure his input was right up there with the entire group and in their unity."

I think Jefferson really was absent from the process. And I gather that he wasn't too excited by the result.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

the issue of Federalism was settled once and for all?
then, what about nullification today? Or the centralization of power under Abraham Lincoln...today it is with health care...etc...

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

Thomas Jefferson was in France.
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The dialectical process of American Creation with the subsequent crafting of the Constitution was a long time of travail and didn't just happen at Philadelphia. At least, that was my point. America wasn't built in a day or by a single act, nor did I mean to imply such a thought.
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Mark in Spokane said...

Thanks, Tom, for providing some fuller context to the quote!