1787 Two Hundred Years Ago

June 2017

On December 20 Thomas Jefferson wrote a long letter to his good friend James Madison about the Constitution. At his post as minister to France, Jefferson had received a copy in November and had scrutinized it carefully since then. “I like much the general idea of framing a government which should go on of itself peacefully, without needing continual recurrence to the state legislatures,” he wrote. “I like the organization of the government into Legislative, Judiciary and Executive. I like the power given the Legislature to levy taxes.…” Madison must have sensed that this cursory listing of likes was building to an outburst of criticism. It soon came.

“I will now add what I do not like,” Jefferson wrote. “First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the law of Nations.…a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”

Jefferson also objected to the Constitution’s allowing reelection of government officials, especially the President. But whatever the document’s failings, Jefferson hoped that if it was ratified, the people would amend it over time.

He concluded his letter with an avowal of faith in his country: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”