Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on Potential Changes to the Constitution, [1800?]

Notes on Potential Changes to the Constitution


war to require ⅔ of Congress.
power over the purse expressly declared a check
all laws void after years
no foreign ministers.
no foreign-armed vessels in our ports during war.
no protection out of our limits
a declaratory part as to all former breaches of constn
states make citizens—bankrupts.
council of appointment.
no appmt. to member of Congress.
electors to be chosen by people not by legislatures
  by district & not by a general vote. quota—all taxes according to numbers. exercise no power
but relative to war Senate new modeled.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 234:41909); entirely in TJ’s hand, undated.

TJ asserted to Edmund Pendleton early in 1799 that “the fate of this country” depended on “whether it shall be irretrievably plunged into a form of government rejected by the makers of the constitution or shall get back to the true principles of that instrument” (Vol. 31:36). If the document printed above constitutes a list of potential revisions to the Constitution, it probably originated no earlier than the spring of 1798, when Madison corrected TJ’s misconception that a declaration of war already required a two-thirds vote of Congress (Vol. 30:190–1, 239–40, 279–80). The attempt to block appropriations for the Jay Treaty had brought out the prospect of using the power over the purse as a check on the executive, but Federalists argued in 1798 that Congress was obliged to fund certain measures (Vol. 29:4, 70–1, 94–5; Vol. 30:155, 471–3). Constitutional issues related to impeachment had come up during William Blount’s case (Vol. 30:58–61, 91, 163, 614–15). In a letter to Philip Norborne Nicholas on 7 Apr. 1800 TJ stated that once Republicans had sufficient strength in Congress they should promulgate a declaratory statement of “the principles of the constitution,” which could take the form of “a Declaration of rights, in all the points in which it has been violated” (Vol. 31:485). Protesting the Alien Friends Act, TJ in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 avowed that only the states, and not the federal government, had any say about citizens, and he lamented the passage of a federal bankruptcy act in the spring of 1800 (Vol. 30:537, 545, 551; Vol. 31:443, 573). The state of New York, as he was aware before 14 Dec. 1800, when he mentioned the subject to Robert R. Livingston, provided an example of a council of appointment. Problems with the selection of presidential Electors, Madison and his Virginia colleagues said early in 1800, required constitutional, rather than statutory, remedy (Vol. 31:300n, 439–40). Quota as an issue in apportionment of taxes had arisen with the Direct Tax (Vol. 30:394).

Although in February 1801 TJ made reference to the possibility of a constitutional convention—see his letters to Benjamin Smith Barton and Monroe at 14 and 15 Feb.—the notes above, which do not address constitutional issues associated with a tied electoral vote, would appear to be of a somewhat earlier date.

According to memorandums filed with the facsimile of this document in the editorial offices, in March 1948 the Editors—specifically Julian P. Boyd and Lyman H. Butterfield—queried at least four scholars to conjecture a probable date for the manuscript. Adrienne Koch posited that the notes dated from the last eight or nine months of 1800, citing TJ’s letters to Nicholas on 7 Apr., Gideon Granger on 13 Aug., and Livingston on 14 Dec. She also related the notes to TJ’s expectations of Republican success in that period. Douglass Adair, unaware of the details of Koch’s response, affirmed that she would be the most capable person to infer a date for the document. By his own somewhat more limited analysis Adair tied it to the 1798–1800 period. Constitutional scholar Edward S. Corwin found that the document dated no earlier than the spring of 1798 and thought that the reference to citizenship related it to that year. Unaware of the specific evidence used particularly by Koch and Corwin, Charles A. Beard could not determine whether TJ made the notes before the ratification of the Constitution or perhaps as late as circa 1800.

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