Why a Living Constitution is Necessary
In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson expressed his belief that the Constitution should be rewritten every 19 years to put the power in the hands of each living generation and avoid “perpetual law.” If one of the Framers didn’t have faith that the Constitution could be applicable only 19 years after it was written, why do Americans think it is absolutely necessary to strictly follow the document 230 years after it was written?
I believe that the discontinuity that Jefferson foresaw all those years ago is why the idea of a living constitution that adapts to modern-day life is essential to our democracy. There is no way that a fairly homogenous group of men in the 18th century could possibly predict the inventions and debates that our country would have in the future. This is why the idea of a Constitution that changes as society does and can be interpreted loosely is necessary to accommodate 21st century America and its citizens.
There are people who believe in the “original intent” theory, which means that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the original intent of the Framers. But the Framers could not have predicted things like cell phones, the internet, or automatic weapons nor planned accordingly for these innovations. Also, at the time that the Framers wrote the Constitution, the United States was a collection of racist, misogynistic, slave-owning white men who had total control over the entire government since they were the only ones allowed to participate. My 21st century interpretation of “We the people” is much different than that of James Madison or Benjamin Franklin. There is no possible way that this group of men could have been inclusive to any of the minority groups. Even Abigail Adams couldn’t convince her own husband to include women’s rights when drafting the new country’s laws.
There had to be some way to change the Constitution to cover the liberties of all people, not just white, landowning men. Over time, we have accomplished this through a loose interpretation of the document and the use of amendments, but these solutions are not always easy. There is a reason we only have 27 amendments to the Constitution, and that is because it is no small task to pass an amendment. To argue that the Constitution must be amended in order to differ from the Framer’s original intent is unrealistic.
Amendments themselves are quite ambiguous, which makes it very difficult to apply the law without leaving some of the interpretation to the three branches. For example, all the 14th amendment says is that no state shall pass a law that will “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States… nor deprive any person of life, liberty, or property” What is a privilege? What is an immunity? What is liberty? All of these words are so broad that they could either mean nothing specifically with a strict interpretation and render themselves useless, or they could mean several things with a loose interpretation and protect all citizens against many different forms of oppression. One of these options is much more effective than the other.
If an amendment is so broad that it cannot be interpreted without justices being accused of “judicial activism” or Congress passing laws that are “unconstitutional”, then what is the point of amending the Constitution? Would all amendments have to specifically state what they want to cover? Would the 14th amendment have to list every right and liberty that it wants to protect for people? That method would be untimely and inefficient since that list of liberties would constantly be growing over time. The only plausible way for our government to work is to have a Constitution that is willing to adapt to the current conditions of our nation and its citizens.
One of the most debated topics in the country right now is gun control and the interpretation of the Second Amendment. On one side, there are gun enthusiasts who believe that any restrictions on guns are unconstitutional. On the other side, there are people who believe that machine guns and other weapons are not covered under the Second Amendment and can be restricted. Unfortunately, the Second Amendment is so ambiguous that neither side can truly claim that their argument is right without a loose interpretation of the Constitution. The amendment promises citizens the right to “keep and bear arms,” but the word “arms” is not clearly defined; therefore, there is no way to determine if this word covers things like bump stocks or automatic weapons. Potentially dangerous ambiguities like this are one example of why a living constitution is necessary.
What’s great about our nation is how our values have changed over time from prejudice and divisiveness to a greater tolerance and inclusiveness. Just because the generations before us did not have these traits does not mean that we need to follow the narrow-mindedness that they had. With a Constitution that is adaptable, our country and the law of the land can constantly readjust themselves to include every citizen and every new invention that comes about. Without a living Constitution, we would forever be stuck in the 18th century, which was only a good time period for one small group of people.