President Thomas Jefferson

“The Constitution on which our Union rests shall be administered by me according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States at the time of its adoption—a meaning to be found in the explanations of those who advocated, not those who opposed it.…These explanations are preserved in the publications of the time.”—The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Bergh 10:248. (1801.)

“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 invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”—The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Bergh 15:449. (1823.)

James Wilson, a leading participant in the constitutional convention, who later became Supreme Court Justice Wilson, said that, “The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.”—The Works of the Honorable James Wilson, 1:14. (1804)

“Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.”
— Thomas Jefferson (letter to William Johnson, 12 June 1823)

Chief Justice Marshall, who participated in the Virginia ratification convention, recognized, in speaking to that body, that if a word was understood in a particular way when the Constitution was framed, the constitutional convention “must have used it in that sense.”

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One Response

  1. “Chief Justice Marshall, who participated in the Virginia ratification convention, recognized, in speaking to that body, that if a word was understood in a particular way when the Constitution was framed, the constitutional convention ‘must have used it in that sense.’ ”

    And within a very short time, as Chief Justice of the United States, he proceeded to turn the Constitution on its head starting with Marbury v Madison. Today we are reaping his legacy with judges making law from the bench. It’s no wonder that Jefferson and he were at such odds.

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