As a future political science major, one of the most talked about documents in my field of study is the Constitution. The, arguably, most prevalent debates over the Constitution is how flexible it should be. Constitutional traditionalists often call for a strict reading of the Constitution in its original form, whereas Constitutional progressives often are in favor of a looser reading of the famous document. This is not a new debate, in fact this debate has been going on since the Constitution was first brought forth. Starting in 1789, when the Bill of Rights was published, the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. Ranging from the ban of alcohol, to the rights for women to vote, the constitution has been added to or changed, but many people say that is not enough. Some people have claimed the entire Constitution should be, periodically rewritten. Is there a historical basis for an idea like this, and would it achieve the end result these people hope for? Many historians say they are conflicted on the issue.
When people turn to historical figures to reason why we need to rewrite the constitution, one of the earliest figures they recall is one of America’s first fathers: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, expressed concerns about a rigid Constitution, and showed great interest in one that could be easily rewritten. As Ambassador to Paris, Jefferson was absent from the writing of the Constitution so his ideas did not show up during the Constitutional convention, but were received in many letters to different frameworkers, most notably James Madison. One of the biggest issues for Jefferson was that the Constitution was the center of the Government, so it must be able to fit the needs of a changing country, and only people living could adapt for that. The idea of “dead should not rule the living” (Reutter, 2007) was something that really plagued the idea of the Constitution for Jefferson. At the time of the letter writing, this was a real issue. Nobody that is dead can change the document, so there needed to be a way to see the document form and change. But to just take this letter at face value would neglect the timing of the writing. This letter in question was written while the early blocks of the Constitution were being laid. At this point there was no talk of a Bill of Rights, and later Amendments had not been discussed at all, so really Jefferson was only warning against a completely solid Constitution. Amendability is right within the Constitution, Article V (National Archives), to be exact, which states exactly how to make amendments, which is exactly what Jefferson had asked for.
Later on in American history, shortly after the Reconstruction Era we saw another President call for the rewrite of the Constitution. This time it was Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, often seen as a quiet man, actually wrote several papers on why the Constitution needed to be rewritten, a lot of which came before he became president. Many of his ideas were geared more towards Congress and the power it has. He wanted to dissolve Congress over a period of time, or at least let the President have more of a presence inside of it. Although his points do make sense inside the letters, you must look deeper into the time to really understand why he felt so strongly. Wilson wrote these letters in a time of great change. America was working on its rebuild, and Congress was running much different than it had run when it was first formed. It had tried to impeach Johnson 20-30 years earlier, had been fighting like never before, and many people of the time believed that Congress needed to be reformed. Again, timing is key on why the call to rewrite was so great.
Even much later in history, in today’s world, the call to rewrite the Constitution is being echoed by voices all over the country, but that does not always mean that it is right. Americans have been given a truly embodies a unique way of life, and one that many people paid their lives to make. To simply discredit their work is truly a dangerous precedent to set. The Constitution is a living, breathing document, and it something that many countries envy. Of course it will have its flaws, but it has stood this long because we have the ability to shape it, refine it, and do what is needed to make it work for us, without the need to rewrite it all together. The forefathers crafted the Constitution to stand the test of time, and it is the responsibility of the people to protect such a legacy.
- “Constitutional Amendment Process.” The National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/constitution.
- “Constitutional Topic: Rewriting the Constitution – The U.S. Constitution Online.” Constitutional Topic: Rewriting the Constitution – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net, https://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_newc.html#Recon.
- “Presidents, Vice Presidents, & Coinciding Sessions of Congress.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Institution/Presidents-Coinciding/Presidents-Coinciding/.
- Reutter, Mark. “U. Of I. Scholars Collecting, Analyzing Constitutions from around the World.” ILLINOIS, 12 Feb. 2007, https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/206732