Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thomas Jefferson on Interpreting the Constitution

The name of Thomas Jefferson is found on this venue fairly often. Part of the reason for this is that his metaphor "separation of church and state" is used to often in common discussions and even in court cases, usually to limit the activities of religious individuals or groups. About 60 years ago the courts started using this metaphor as a guide to deciding cases (or a justification for opinions personally held by the judges/justices). So while the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" some court decisions choose to draw on the metaphor instead. Jefferson had advice about this in at least two different missives:

"The true key for the construction of everything doubtful in a law is the intention of the law-makers. This is most safely gathered from the words, but may be sought also in extraneous circumstances provided they do not contradict the express words of the law." Found in correspondence from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:59

"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 a letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:449

Learn more at the University of Virginia website

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