To be Strict or to not be Strict?
In order to fully assess Thomas Jefferson's political question, we must understand and go in depth into his views over the constitution and its flexibility. Jefferson was noted to be a hard constructionist, that is he opposed flexibility in the judicial branch and loose interpretations of the Constitution. Constructionists believed that if a ruling in the Constitution has a clear explanation, then there should be no extra interpretation of it. This political philosophy is opposite to the activist approach, which calls for interpretation of Constitutional ruling based on moral or economic grounds. Jefferson was highly passionate over his controversial and strict stance over the Constitution, being the first president to raise the question of the field of power the judicial branch had and its power over the constitution.
Now that we've looked into his stance, we must understand the basis of his views. Jefferson is reported to have believed in the strict constitution philosophy due to two reasons: Liberty and free will of the people. Liberty was defined by Jefferson as "unobstructed according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others". This means, for example, that if a Muslim wanted to worship in a mosque peacefully and privately without infringing on the rights of others, he is able to do so. This is opposed to murdering someone and labeling the act as "liberty", as it infringes on the rights of others to be able to live peacefully. Jefferson subscribed to Locke's philosophical natural rights theory, believing that every man is born with God-given rights (Locke stating that these main rights were the right to "life, liberty, and property") that must be respected. Also taking in more of Locke's political philosophy, he affirmed that if the laws of a nation did not protect one's liberties (an example, Ferdinand and Isabella's tyrannical expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain), then the laws of that nation are illegitimate and the people of that nation are fully excused in revolting against their government. What Jefferson believed to be the biggest obstacle to pure liberty was a tyrannical government with no limitations, which is why he was a hardworking man in the fight against loose interpretation of the Constitution. He feared that loose interpretations of law could lead to a government taking on rulings, allowing them to maintain unlimited, detrimental power, consequently hindering the free will of the population.
The second reason, the people's right to exercise free will, was something Jefferson strongly stood by. He believed by restricting the government's power, people had the ability to exercise their god-given right to do whatever that pleases them (obviously within boundaries). Jefferson is quoted to have said that he is "...not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive. It places the governors indeed more at their ease, at the expense of the people". He viewed the constitution as something that kept the constitution "grounded", which allowed for liberty to "yield". This is why he opposed changes made to the constitution and sought to stick with its raw interpretation. Thomas Jefferson believed that the government only had as much power "which that instrument [constitution] gives".
Jefferson vigorously exercised his views whenever possible. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton supported the creation of a national bank. Hamilton (and the North) backed up Congress, stating that they had the ability to do so as the government were obliged to do whatever they can to keep the country prosper and in its best state. He believed in the opposite of Jefferson's views as he believed in a broad interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson (and the South) was strong to oppose Hamilton, stating that the idea of a national bank exceeded the Constitution's powers given to the government. If there wasn't a specific ruling in the Constitution giving the government the power to create a bank, it was deemed unconstitutional (in Jefferson's views). He was stubborn in that the national bank would leave out the farmers (hence the South opposed the bank). Although Jefferson's efforts, Hamilton was able to succeed in his arguments as Congress voted 3-1 in favor of a national bank.
Now that I've gone ahead and reviewed Jefferson's basis as to why he's so adamant on keeping the government restricted to the constitution, we can now dive into the question of if our government has been reduced to a "blank paper" because we made changes to it. My simple answer is no, it has not.
Change is inevitable, being something that will happen regardless whether we want it to happen or not. Our times are definitely different from the times the Constitution creation (for example, slavery is outlawed in our times while slavery was a legal act in the late 1700s). According to Jefferson's own logic, he reduced the Constitution to exactly a "blank paper" with his Louisiana Territory purchase. No statement or ruling gave the national government a right to control foreign land, let alone incorporating the land into the USA. Although this went against Jefferson's campaign of strict constitutionalism, he went ahead and bought the land from France, stating that "In the meantime we must ratify and pay our money, as we have treated, for a thing beyond the Constitution, and rely on the nation to sanction an act done for its great good". He also justified his controversial move in a private letter towards John Breckinridge, a Virginian lawyer and politician, stating "It is the case of a guardian, investing the money of his ward in purchasing an important adjacent territory; and saying to him when of age, I did this for your good". Although controversial, Jefferson was not held accountable by the Supreme Court for this move. As detailed, even Jefferson violated his own rule of sticking strictly to the constitution by his purchase of the Louisiana Territory - thus, how can we hold Jefferson's quote of "blank paper" true? How do his arguments have any water when he clearly went against his own words?
Jefferson is not the only example of using methods to commit actions that are beyond the scope of the Constitution. Another example of this is the Iraq War, in which millions of Iraqis were killed within the first couple years of conflict. The Iraqi war started because George Bush felt that Iraq was holding weapons of mass destruction and wanted to bring democracy into the country of Iraq. The claim of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false. Although the initiation of the Iraq war was completely unconstitutional because the decision to go to war was enacted by George Bush rather than the Congress, the government managed to go off into a foreign land and completely break it down in the name of "democracy" - a disgraceful action by the US that caused grave consequences which we still see today since the emergence of ISIS in 2014. The constitutionality of the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s mirror my stance on the constitutionality of the Iraq War, it was also unconstitutional. The US used the excuse of fear mongering of the Japanese people in order to oppress its own citizens.
The amendment process described in Article V can go in either of two ways: the first way being 2/3 of Congress must approve an amendment vs. the second way being several states must call a state delegates convention, approved by 2/3 of the state delegates, and 3/4 of the states must approve of it (otherwise known as an "Amendment Convention"). The Amendment Convention has never been used despite several applications to Congress for one have been sent in the last decades. Many people support an Amendment Convention because they feel like state legislatures know better about the people's interests than Congress since they represent a smaller group of people vs. Congress representing the whole nation (which, personally, makes sense to me). Another argument in favor of the Amendment Convention process is that states can make steady progress into getting their needs fulfilled by persuading states one step at a time to a convention.
Arguments in favor range from fear of the unknown to possibility of unrelated amendments being passed in the conventions. Since all 27 amendments in the past have been passed by Congress, skeptics are wary of this process as this has never been done before. Critics also believe that states could hold a convention and approve of amendments totally unrelated to the proposed amendments that were called before. This would lead to major issues between Congress and the states, which may lead to worse consequences (a civil war, perhaps). Also, varying political beliefs (liberals vs. conservatives) would lead to an inability to come to a conclusion.
Although there is weight in both arguments, the Amendment Convention sounds like a very positive idea - simply because the state legislatures know best about what their citizens would like vs. Congress who represent a wider range of people. This would tie in with the real essence of the Declaration of Independence: "That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed", explaining that the government's powers are reserved from the people's needs. I feel like this argument is strong enough to convince me that this an Amendment Convention is a good alternative to proposing a new amendment.
Jefferson may have been a major political figure, but his words of strict constitutionality prove to be weightless. His actions during the Louisiana Purchase allowed me to arrive to that conclusion. Not only Jefferson, but the US over the many years this country has existed, have stretched their huge hand above the horizon of the Constitution in order to fulfill ill-will desires (as seen in Japanese Internment Camps and the Iraq War). Thanks to our ability to propose amendments to our Constitution (although positive in which we're able to voice our issues, but also cause issues between the states and the federal government), we have a chance to shut down any unconstitutional actions committed by the ones who power over us.
References[edit | edit source]
- Carson, Clarence (1983-10-01). "Judicial Monopoly Over the Constitution: Jefferson's View | Clarence Carson". fee.org. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- "The Judiciary". www.socialstudieshelp.com. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- "Constitutional Rights Foundation". www.crf-usa.org. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- "Spain announces it will expel all Jews - HISTORY". www.history.com. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- "The Purging of Muslim Spain | History Today". www.historytoday.com. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- ushistory.org. "Foundations of American Government [ushistory.org]". www.ushistory.org. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- Powell, Jim (1995-07-01). "Thomas Jefferson's Sophisticated, Radical Vision of Liberty | Jim Powell". fee.org. Retrieved 2020-10-22.
- "Alexander Hamilton: Father of American Banking". VOA. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
- "John Breckinridge | American politician [1760–1806]". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
- "The Louisiana Purchase: Jefferson's constitutional gamble - National Constitution Center". National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
- "The Human Cost of the War in Iraq". web.mit.edu. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
- Kessler, Glenn. "Analysis | The Iraq War and WMDs: An intelligence failure or White House spin?". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
- "(2/12/2004) Iraq Invasion Was Unconstitutional". albionmonitor.com. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
- Ignatius, Story by David. "How ISIS Spread in the Middle East". The Atlantic. ISSN 1072-7825. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
- "Supreme Court Overturns Ruling That Enabled Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II". Time. Retrieved 2020-11-03.
- "Two Methods to Pass an Amendment: Pros, Cons and Our Point of View". American Promise. 2019-04-05. Retrieved 2020-11-02.
- "Article V, U.S. Constitution". National Archives. 2016-08-15. Retrieved 2020-11-02.
- Assembled, the United States of America in Congress. United States Declaration of Independence.