Influential Statements on Amending the Constitution

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Thomas Jeffersonjefferson2

(in alphabetical order by first word)

“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.”
–Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

‘All human constitutions are subject to corruption and must perish unless they are timely renewed and reduced to their first principles.'” –Thomas Jefferson copied into his Commonplace Book

“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.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

“Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right. It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to nineteen years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459

“Forty years [after a] Constitution… was formed,… two-thirds of the adults then living are… dead. Have, then, the remaining third, even if they had the wish, the right to hold in obedience to their will and to laws heretofore made by them, the other two-thirds who with themselves compose the present mass of adults? If they have not, who has? The dead? But the dead have no rights. They are nothing, and nothing can not own something. Where there is no substance, there can be no accident [i.e., attribute].” –Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:42

“Governments… are always in their stock of information a century or two behind the intelligent part of mankind, and… have interests against touching ancient institutions.” –Thomas Jefferson to Robert Patterson, 1811. ME 13:87

“Happy for us that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions.” –Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787. ME 6:295, Papers 12:113

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” ― Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson

“Let us go on perfecting the Constitution by adding, by way of amendment, those forms which time and trial show are still wanting.” –Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803. ME 9:419

“Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be nature herself indicates. By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided by the constitution, so that it may be handed on with periodical repairs from generation to generation to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.” –Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:42

“Nothing is more likely than that [the] enumeration of powers is defective. This is the ordinary case of all human works. “Let us then go on perfecting it by adding by way of amendment to the Constitution those powers which time and trial show are still wanting.” –Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803. ME 10:419

“The generations of men may be considered as bodies or corporations. Each generation has the usufruct of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist, the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation free and unencumbered and so on successively from one generation to another forever. 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.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:270

“The real friends of the Constitution in its federal form, if they wish it to be immortal, should be attentive, by amendments, to make it keep pace with the advance of the age in science and experience. Instead of this, the European governments have resisted reformation until the people, seeing no other resource, undertake it themselves by force, their only weapon, and work it out through blood, desolation and long-continued anarchy.” –Thomas Jefferson to Robert J. Garnett, 1824. ME 16:15

“We must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step. We must be contented with the ground which [the new] Constitution will gain for us, and hope that a favorable moment will come for correcting what is amiss in it.” –Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Moustier, 1788. ME 7:13

“Whatever be the Constitution, great care must be taken to provide a mode of amendment when experience or change of circumstances shall have manifested that any part of it is unadapted to the good of the nation.” Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:488

Jefferson Sources[1]lincoln2

Abraham Lincoln

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.  First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall

The people made the Constitution, and the people can unmake it.  It is the creature of their own will, and lives only by their will.Marshall1 - Copy

last revised 11/10/14


[1] Jefferson Sources
The source of these quotations attributed them to the following sources now in the public domain:
(1) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson(FE) Edition by Paul Leicester Ford 10 Vols., New York, 1892-99.
(2) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson  (ME) Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors) 20 Vols., Washington, D.C., 1903-04.
(3) The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Edition by Henry A. Washington 9 Vols., Washington, D.C., 1853-54.
(4) The following source was frequently used to locate appropriate quotations, which were later verified in other sources when possible: The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, Edited by John P. Foley, 2 Vols., New York, 1900.




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