The Land of the Free

….when you go around advertising yourself as such, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that “the more freedoms, the better” tends to become a major trend…

“I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathised with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it.”

~Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Coles, 25 August 1814


It’s an interesting thing to see and hear people say that “the Framers would have never” expected something to happen or approved of it.  Of course, there are any number of modern ideas and inventions and attitudes that would certainly surprise them.  I’m sure the internet and television would come as quite the shock.  But there is something insidious and insulting when implying that the Founders were either a) too stupid to realize what they were creating would have broad ramifications that would eventually lead to a great deal of change, or b) so short-sighted they believed that the Constitution and their initial ideas that became law would be the ONLY ones to ever exist or matter.  Both of which are absolutely ridiculous.  The Constitution itself tells us that the Founders knew other changes would come and that their creation would evolve.  We can be absolutely sure of this because they built in the ability to make amendments, and established judicial review.  That is to say, they deliberately left a way for later generations to decide and codify new ideas or solutions to old problems into the fundamental law of our land.  The Marshall Court (led by the formidable John Marshall, himself a lesser-known founding father) regularly took on the issues that occurred when other major Founding Fathers were Presidents, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.  And as Marshall would put it during Marbury v. Madison, “Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.”

So do we honestly think that the Founding Fathers were too ignorant or narrow-minded to see that broad changes, and freedoms that even they may not have conceived of would come?  Of course not.  Even as the ink was drying on the Constitution, nearly every Founding Father (including the slave-holding ones!) knew that the slavery question would be decided later down the road.  They knew it directly contradicted the very values that had gone into creating our new government, but they also knew there was no feasible way to address it at the time.  Government that is built for the people and draws its legitimacy by operating from among them cannot ever possibly expect to push past what the people will endure.  But does that mean the Founders would have found the eventual Civil War and emancipation of the enslaved population of America unexpected?  Or that they would have disapproved of it?  Quite the contrary.  They knew that the slaves would eventually HAVE to be free, they just couldn’t do it themselves because most people of their time couldn’t have swallowed it.  A lot of our history as a nation has worked out that way, be it on the matter of slavery or women’s voting rights or civil rights.  And guess what?  The Founding Fathers expected it.  Because they knew that the most important bedrock of our society was really just one thing: the love of liberty.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Coles, 25 August 1814 (emphasis added by me)

Electronic Text Courtesy of Monticello and the University of Virginia

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