Originalism: Historic and Philosophic Roots

Originalism: Historic and Philosophic Roots

Why study Constitution and influences on our Founding Fathers? What insights do they have for us today?

This unit in the No. 86 video curriculum explores some key ideas that undergirded the writing of the Constitution: natural rights, separation of powers, mixed regime theory, federalism.  These ideas came from varied sources: the British Constitutional experience, English and Scottish Enlightenment scholars, the French philosopher Montesquieu, and others.

“Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.”

― Federalist No. 2

The Constitution is a complex document, one that was ratified only after intense debate.  Studying that complexity enables us to better understanding the origins of the document.

This unit also deals with normative questions such as:  Does adherence to the Constitution of 1787 bind us to the ‘dead hand’ of the past?  What right did our Founding Fathers have to create a document that binds us today?

 

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1 of 6: The Earth Belongs to the Living: Jefferson & Madison’s Debate [No. 86]

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote a letter to James Madison in 1789 in which he said that the earth belongs to the living, the earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. This letter is frequently quoted in favor of interpreting the Constitution as a ... Thomas Jefferson famously wrote a letter to James Madison in 1789 in which he said that the earth belongs to the living, the earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. This letter is frequently quoted in favor of interpreting the Constitution as a living, breathing document. James Madison, however, has a lesser-known response. The improvements made by the dead like the Constitution form a debt against the living who benefit from them.

Professor Ilan Wurman summarizes the debate between Jefferson and Madison, and its implications for understanding the debate over whether and how the Constitution binds us today.

Ilan Wurman is a visiting assistant professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where he teaches administrative law and constitutional law. He is the author of A Debt Against the Living: An Introduction to Originalism (Cambridge 2017).

As always, the Federalist Society takes no position on particular legal or public policy issues; all expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.

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