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Another thing I don’t understand…

February 9, 2010

Listening to Glenn Beck today as he rambled on about Thomas Jefferson and original intent as regards the Constitution. My first thought was, “Jefferson wasn’t involved in writing the Constitution, so why is Beck looking to him for original intent?”, My second though was, “Jefferson didn’t believe in original intent so why are concerned with what he thought the intent of the Constitution was?”

Jefferson’s dedication to “consent of the governed” was so thorough that he believed that individuals could not be morally bound by the actions of preceding generations. This included debts as well as law. He said that “no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.” He even calculated what he believed to be the proper cycle of legal revolution: “Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it is to be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.” He arrived at nineteen years through calculations with expectancy of life tables, taking into account what he believed to be the age of “maturity”—when an individual is able to reason for himself.[81] He also advocated that the national debt should be eliminated. He did not believe that living individuals had a moral obligation to repay the debts of previous generations. He said that repaying such debts was “a question of generosity and not of right.”[82]

Can someone explain it to me?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Doe permalink
    February 13, 2010 9:26 am

    I can try (I’m a lawyer). Let’s say the original Constitution read “Congress shall make no law regarding the color of paint a citizen may paint their house.” Sounds straightforward and clear. That was the Constitution that was enacted. The understanding of the framers and of the citizens would be that the Congress could not make a law that infringed on the right to paint a house whatever color one wanted.

    Then centuries later a progressive Supreme Court comes along and says, “Well, actually congress may enact such laws. Times have changed. They only had white back then, and maybe blue. Today there are millions of different colors, and some are obnoxious, and a vast majority of the population hates many of them. The Constitution is a living breathing document that changes with the generations.”

    Sounds far out and unbelievable, but that is exactly what the Court has been doing for the past few decades. Remember recently they ruled that child molesters could not be executed, they used this exact reasoning, claiming the countries notions of what was cruel and unusual punishment (I believe was the argument) had changed since the ratification of the Constitution.

    Jefferson’s view was that the people must consent to each law and to the Constitution. That is why it was ratified by all the states. If a state had not agreed to it, that state would not enter the Union. But he did not agree that those living could bind us 200 years later. You and I never voted to adopt the Constitution, it was foisted on us by old dead white men. I happen to like most of it, but I never had a say in the matter.

    If the Constitution expired every 19 years, then I would have had a say in the matter 2-3 times by now. As it is, instead of adopting a new one, the Supreme Court and federal courts just change it themselves as the times change. Instead of the people deciding what the Constitution should say, appointed for life ex-lawyers get to decide. That is not a republican form of democracy, that is an oligarchy.

    • jenn1964 permalink*
      February 13, 2010 11:06 am

      Thanks. In a way you are backing up my point. I wasn’t defending the idea of the living constitution as much as I was pointing out that the idea of original intent might not have found support with the people Beck is quoting in regards to original intent.

      Personally I support the idea of original intent with appropriate modifications as time goes on by amendment or by law. I personally think that the necessary and proper clause gives congress much more power than many conservatives do, but that is based on my reading of some of the federalist and anti-federalist papers and some other things. I also think that the wise exercise of power is a restrained exercise of power so I don’t think the two views are really that contradictory.

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