Founders’ Quotes Aren’t Post-It-Notes

I spend a lot of times studying what the founders wrote. After all, that’s an important part of how we determine the original, legal meaning of the Constitution. But it’s important to always consider context.

One of the foundations of constitutional originalism is that it has a fixed meaning. In a letter to William Johnson, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“On every question of construction let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”

But Russell C. took to Twitter to smack down this idea in response to a Tenth Amendment Center video. The TAC tweeted a link to the video asserting the Constitution isn’t silly-putty, emphasizing, “The #Constitution is a legal document with a fixed meaning. It was not intended to change with the shifting sands of public or judicial opinions.”

Russell C. responded by quoting from a letter Jefferson wrote to Samuel Kercheval.

“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.”

But he totally ignored the context. In that very same latter, Jefferson wrote:

” I am certainly not an advocate for frequent & untried changes in laws and constitutions.”

The second quote from the same letter completely undercut Russell C’s assertion. While Jefferson did write on more than one occasion that he didn’t believe one generation should be able to bind the next by law or constitution, he never used that idea to argue that the meaning of a constitution should shift and change with the wind. In fact, in the very letter Russell C. quoted from, Jefferson was advocating for revisions of the Virginia constitution in order to bring it up to the times. He never suggested the people should just ignore what the current Virginia  Constitution said.

Instead of admitting he misapplied his initial Jefferson quote, Russell C. doubled down, quoting from a letter Jefferson wrote to James Madison.

“Let’s be honest, TJ thought change necessary… ‘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.'”

But we never claimed TJ didn’t think change was necessary. We asserted that the Constitution isn’t silly putty. Jefferson never disputed this fact. He consistently held that the Constitution means what it means until amended or replaced. In an 1802 letter to Joseph Priestley, he wrote:

“It is still certain that tho’ written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally & recall the people: they fix too for the people principles for their political creed.”

We love quotes from the founders. But they aren’t Post-It-Notes for you to slap on whatever idea happens to run through your head. You must always keep them in context, not only with the larger passage the come from, but also with writer’s larger body of work. Don’t be like Russell C. Don’t take quotes out of context. Make sure you understand the bigger picture.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.