Jefferson's Constitutions

Forthcoming in CONSTITUTIONS AND THE CLASSICS: PATTERNS OF CONSTITUTIONAL THOUGHT FROM JOHN FORTESCUE TO JEREMY BENTHAM (D.J.Galligan ed.; Oxford University Press, 2014)

Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-68

32 Pages Posted: 31 Oct 2014 Last revised: 1 Nov 2014

See all articles by Gerald Leonard

Gerald Leonard

Boston University School of Law

Date Written: October 31, 2014

Abstract

Between 1787 and 1840, the Constitution gained a far more democratic meaning than it had had at the Founding, and Thomas Jefferson was a key figure in the process of democratization. But, while more democratic in inclination than many of the Framers, he fell far short of the radically democratic constitutionalism of his most important acolytes, Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson. This chapter of Constitutions and the Classics explains that Jefferson was actually much less attached to democracy and more to law as the heart of the republican Constitution. Compared to the 1830s founders of the nation’s democratic Constitution, Jefferson retained much of the elitist, law-oriented, antiparty, slavery-protective (though not pro-slavery) convictions of most of the Framers. He broke somewhat from most of the Framers, however, in taking a radical states’-rights view of the Constitution akin to that of the opponents of the Constitution. In practice, his constitutional politics as Republican leader in the 1790s and president in the 1800s built an important bridge to the democratic Constitution of his successors, even if he never fully embraced that development. And his firm defense of states’ rights, especially in connection with slavery, undermined his occasional endorsement of a very limited antislavery authority in the federal government. The ascendancy of the Jacksonian Democratic party would entrench essentially Jeffersonian constitutional principles of states’ rights and slavery protection but would substitute democratic will for reason and law at the foundation of the Constitution.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, constitutional history, federalism, states' rights, slavery, democracy, political parties, Alien and Sedition Acts, Summary View, Notes on the State of Virginia

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49

Suggested Citation

Leonard, Gerald, Jefferson's Constitutions (October 31, 2014). Forthcoming in CONSTITUTIONS AND THE CLASSICS: PATTERNS OF CONSTITUTIONAL THOUGHT FROM JOHN FORTESCUE TO JEREMY BENTHAM (D.J.Galligan ed.; Oxford University Press, 2014); Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 14-68. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2517297

Gerald Leonard (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-353-3138 (Phone)
617-353-3077 (Fax)

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