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Jefferson’s Proposal for an Expiring Constitution on a 19-Year Cycle

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If there was ever a person who I would say was a mentor to me with respect to political understanding, it is Thomas Jefferson. It was interesting that Jefferson was often attacked because of his ideas. In an 18th-century presidential campaign, people slandered Jefferson’s candidacy to support John Adams, accusing Jefferson of being “half Injun, half nigger, half Frenchman” and born to a “mulatto father” or slave and “a half-breed Indian squaw”. This birth to a mulatto and an Indian was allegedly “well-known in the neighborhood where he was raised”. Jefferson’s father was Peter Jefferson (1708–1757) who married Jane Randolph Jefferson (1721–1776), in 1739 when he was 31 and she was 18.

Thomas married Martha (1748–1782) in 1772. She had six children, which weakened her and she died in 1782. Thomas vowed not to remarry and so he did not. While only two of his daughters survived into adulthood, it was long-rumored that Jefferson fathered six more children with his slave, Sally Hemings. This began in September 1802 when a political journalist James T. Callender, a disaffected former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years “Kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves…Her name is Sally,” Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had “several children” by her.

Jefferson was really the American leader in the Enlightenment Era. Jefferson was a polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics, who is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. A polymath is a person known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term was first used in the seventeenth century and is more commonly known as a “Renaissance man” which is often applied to the gifted people of that age who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social and physical. While our formal education sought to teach many different disciplines, the great failure of our modern education system has been the lack of drawing any connectivity between the fields. In this failure, education only mimics the creation of a “Renaissance man” without grasping what it truly means.

Thomas Jefferson was considered an important architect in the classical tradition; he designed his home Monticello and other notable buildings. Jefferson was keenly interested in science, invention, architecture, religion, and philosophy. He was an active member and eventual president of the American Philosophical Society. This may be reflected best in what became known as “Jefferson’s Bible” or “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” its formal title. He constructed this interesting book during the latter years of his life by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. What Jefferson was doing was trying to reduce this to the philosophy of Jesus – the thinking process minus the religion. Jefferson’s condensed composition was misunderstood, for it became notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the resurrection and most other miracles, as well as passages indicating Jesus was divine. He was interested in the pure teachings without the religious embellishment – sort of only his direct philosophy reduced in a manner such as extraction something akin to the Ten Commandments rather than other’s interpretation.

Jefferson was a deep thinker. He was conversant in French, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, and studied other languages and linguistics – interests that led him to found the University of Virginia after his presidency. Although not a notable orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe throughout his adult life.

Yet there was another side to Jefferson that the vast majority never fathomed. Emerging from being truly a polymath or “Renaissance man”, Jefferson made the connections between all the fields of study and saw the hidden order. This was in part the reason for his condensed “Jefferson Bible”, and attempt to get at the truth of all things. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson described sending two trunks of books of important works:

“I have at length made up the purchase of books for you, as far as it can be done for the present. The objects which I have not yet been able to get, I shall continue to seek for. Those purchased, are packed this morning in two trunks, and you have the catalogue and prices herein inclosed. …. Greek and Roman authors are dearer here than I believe any where in the world. No body here reads them, wherefore they are not reprinted. Don Ulloa in the original not to be found. The collection of tracts on the economics of different nations we cannot find; nor Amelot’s travels into China. I shall send these two trunks of books to Havre there to wait a conveiance [sic] to America”

The inventory of books he sent to Madison has survived. They show the diverse study he was interested in, including history. What emerged from his diverse knowledge was an ability to see the repetitive nature of history and man. This is reflected in a strange concept that many people have no knowledge ever existed. Jefferson believed that the Constitution should automatically expire every nineteen years. Jefferson’s understanding of cycles is fascinating, for he was very poignant in his comments written in his letters. In particular:

“Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right. It may be said, that the succeeding generation exercising, in fact, the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to nineteen years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be, indeed, if every form of government were so perfectly contrived, that the will of the majority could always be obtained, fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils, bribery corrupts them, personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise, so as to prove to every practical man, that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.”

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459, Papers 15:396

There is little doubt that Jefferson’s most famous quotes never address the deep knowledge this man possessed from all his diverse studies. Some of his most prominent quotes remain:

  • “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
  • “Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.”
  • “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Jefferson’s idea that the Constitution should expire every 19 years illustrates that the man studied history. His view that a national debt is enslaving turning future generations and amounts to taxation without representation is stunningly correct and it is my argument that the national debt MUST be eliminated.

Likewise, the constitution should expire; requiring review on the 19-year cycle is another check and balance against government, but at the same time that could be dangerous. It was during the late 1800’s when the Progressive Era began following Marx. There are some basic principles that just cannot be subject to change – no debt and no direct taxation.