I often find news articles or snippets of them or quotes and email them to myself as reminders of things to write about when I have a few free minutes, as I do today. As I was searching through my “Ideas” folder in my email, I came across this:
As usual, Thomas Jefferson put it best. In a letter to a friend in 1816, he mocked “men [who] look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched”; “who ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.” “Let us follow no such examples, nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs,” he concluded. “Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before.”
As usual, Jefferson is correct. And in our present age where constitutional fundamentalism is perhaps more highly in vogue than at any point in our nation's history, Jefferson's words are poignant reminder of the Founders' true intent. Perhaps the only irony of this statement is that Jefferson, in his wisdom, was proving himself to have, if not “a wisdom more than human” at least a wisdom greater than many of those who came after.
The Founders of the United States were attempting to establish a society as free of tyranny as had yet been envisioned on this earth. Free from the tyranny of a state-sponsored religion, and equally free of the tyranny of a church-sponsored state. And while the doctrinal Anglican Church and the unsubstantiated “divine” right of kings were the evils most pressing on their minds in the years when the foundations of our nation were being laid, the tyranny of tradition was not far removed from their thoughts.
But some people enjoy tyranny. Many of our current Supreme Court Justices, and presidential candidates, are of this persuasion. Tradition, dogma, tyranny. It is an easy slide from one to the other. They are seductive. They free a mind from that unbearable burden of thinking for itself. (It is no coincidence that those to whom constitutional fundamentalism appeals are often those to whom religious fundamentalism appeals as well.) Why do the hard work of making the best human effort you can to resolve the problems you are faced with in your lifetime, when you can just rigidly adhere to the solutions of a time long gone, and shrug your shoulders at their consequences in this one?
Jefferson argued that the Constitution should be rewritten every 20 years- once a generation. As brilliant a political and philosophical mind as his, was humble enough to recognize that his wisdom, his yearnings for what his nation should be, could not extend beyond the horizon of his own lifetime. We should have the good sense to take one of the fathers of the American Constitution at his own word, and trust his assessment of their own limitations.
One of the other great minds of the age, Thomas Paine said,
"The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?"
This statement is so obvious, it warrants almost no comment. There are, however, a few small addenda worth making. First, while slavish adherence to tradition is supreme folly, total disregard of tradition is only slightly less so. Traditions are generally established for some legitimate reason, conscious or unconscious at the time, and casting them out without serious deliberation as to their present utility is done at our own peril.
Second, I would add, “... it is the living, and to a lesser degree, those not yet living, that have any right to it.” We owe something to those who will come after us. This can be asserted from a purely philosophical stance, or made poignant, and very real, when one has children. At the same time, however, human beings are designed to discount the future, and this is rational in the abstract sense, (though our animal faculties often do a poor job with the actual calculations.) $100 now is worth more than $100 a year from now. All other things being equal, the present is more valuable than the future, as we do not know what the later holds. ($100 now may be worth less than $200 a year from now but how much we discount the future depends on myriad complicating factors.)
But Paine's main point remains unscathed. The dead have wisdom to share with the living, but wisdom is not immutable. The wisdom of a previous age may be the folly of this one. And it is up to those in the living, breathing present to decide which is which.
So let us set aside the paradox inherent in what I am about to say, and recognize that both these men passed onto us the one piece of wisdom that may very well be unchanging- That what is right, what is fair, what is just and what is wise, is up to those who stand to gain the most, or lose the most, from their proper, current, evaluation.