Imagine re-writing the US Constitution every 19 years

Painting of the signing of the US Constitution

Photo: Signing of the US Constitution – Wikipedia.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are famous for a number of things. Foremost, they were both President’s of the United States of America, as well as being two of the Founding Fathers.

However, what is not much known is their work in the US Constitution. Madison, firstly, was one of the main authors of the Federalist Papers; a series of 85 articles written, pressing for the ratification of the Constitution between 1877-88.

The two men worked closely in the legislature of Virginia, where Madison served as Jefferson’s chief lieutenant in the Republican Party, and later was selected as Jefferson’s Secretary of State when he became President in 1800.

Jefferson also had his fair share of constitutional pie, particularly in his drafts of the Constitution of Virginia. His drafts were written too late to be incorporated into the final document.

However, perhaps one of the most intriguing things Jefferson contributed to constitutionalism were his letters written between the 1780s and 1820s, to various political figures of the day. Primary among the ideas in these letters was his idea to review the US Constitution every 19 years.

This letter was written by Jefferson from Paris in the September of 1789 to James Madison:

“…To keep our ideas clear when applying them to a multitude, let us suppose a whole generation of men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day, and to die on the same day, leaving a succeeding generation in the moment of attaining their mature age all together.

Portrait of James Madison

Photo: James Madison – Wikimedia..

“Let the ripe age be supposed of 21. years, and their period of life 34. years more, that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to persons who have already attained 21. years of age. Each successive generation would, in this way, come on and go off the stage at a fixed moment, as individuals do now.

“Then I say the earth belongs to each of these generations during it’s course, fully, and in their own right. The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the 1st., the 3d. of the 2d. and so on. For if the 1st. could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation. Then no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it’s own existence.

“But with respect to future debts; would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare in the constitution they are forming that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself can validly contract more debt, than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19. years? And that all future contracts shall be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19. years from their date? This would put the lenders, and the borrowers also, on their guard. By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within its natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding.

“The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct….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.”

From initial reading, it appears Jefferson’s main concern is with that of the debts and property status of each generations, but this final passage is critical, if not only for the idea it proposes: the notion of the laws which governed the dead now governing the living.

This idea was not a one-off fancy for Jefferson. No, he pursued this idea in several letters in the future. For instance, this letter was written to John Wayles Eppes in 1813. Eppes was a Virginian Senator 1803-11, and married the daughter of Thomas Jefferson.

“We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country. Or the case may be likened to the ordinary one of a tenant for life, who may hypothecate the land for his debts, during the continuance of his usufruct; but at his death, the reversioner (who is also for life only) receives it exonerated from all burthen.

“The period of a generation, or the term of its life, is determined by the laws of mortality, which, varying a little only in different climates, offer a general average, to be found by observation.”

Finally, Jefferson wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright. Cartwright spent his life pursuing universal suffrage, secret ballots, and equal electoral districts, and he outlined these ideas in his English Constitution. This letter was written to Cartwright in the year of Cartwright’s death – 1824.

“Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will.

“The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves.

“Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”

What would this idea Jefferson proposes – of every law and constitution becoming invalid after a period of 19 years – mean in today’s world?

Last night’s Democratic debate rose the question of the 2nd Amendment, and it is a question that has gained prominence in the past year, with several mass shootings at college campuses. If the laws on the USA were reviewed every 19 years, how would each generation affect its wording?

It is a fascinating proposal; how practical it might be is another question entirely. However, the concept of each generation living as a generation under its own laws, and not those of a bygone generation, is an interesting one to bear in mind when viewing the issues we face today.


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