Thursday, May 1, 2008

Jefferson on Interpreting the Constitution

President Jefferson is often quoted when discussing religion and government, but it is almost always only his brief metaphor "separation of church and state." That metaphor has been used in court decisions without any other justification from Jefferson or other founders. But Jefferson gave his thought on interpretation of the Constitution in his June 12, 1823 letter to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson:

"On every question of construction, 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."

From Jefferson Writings, Merril D. Peterson ed. (NY; Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.) 1984, p. 1475

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