The State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse

 

U.S. states where the people can use a state constitutional convention to bypass the legislature's gatekeeping power over constitutional amendment

Quotes

Framers of the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence and 1787 Federal Constitution

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

–U.S. Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776

Thomas Jefferson

“The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; & that no such obligation can be so transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it….  [N]o society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, & what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.”

–Letter to James Madison from Thomas Jefferson September 6, 1789

“Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be nature herself indicates. By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen years. At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into place; or, in other words, a new generation. Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided by the constitution, so that it may be handed on with periodical repairs from generation to generation to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval July 16, 1816

“[T]he mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and… the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, May 28, 1816

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, September 28, 1820

“Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, June 5, 1824

“The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th anniversary of American independence; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument, pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and… the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which Monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self government… all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man…  the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.”

–Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, June 24, 1826

Chronologically ordered selection of Jefferson’s writings on a living constitution: “The earth belongs to the living”:
1) “Jefferson to James Madison, 6 September 1789”,
2) “Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816”,
3) “First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801”,
4) “Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, 24 June 1826”

“[T]o render a form of government unalterable by ordinary acts of assembly, the people must delegate persons with special powers. They have accordingly chosen special conventions to form and fix their governments. The individuals then who maintain the contrary opinion in this country, should have the modesty to suppose it possible that they may be wrong and the rest of America right.”

–Thomas Jefferson, The constitution of the state, and its several charters? Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785

A more general collection of Jefferson quotes on changing a constitution can be found here.

George Washington

“The warmest friends to and the best supporters of the Constitution, do not contend that it is free from imperfections…. I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdom—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people.”

–George Washington, Letter to Bushrod Washington November 9, 1787

“The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and alter their constitutions of government.”

–George Washington, Farewell Address September 19, 1796

George Mason

“The plan now to be formed will certainly be defective, as the Confederation has been found, on trial, to be.  Amendments, therefore, will be necessary….  [T]o provide for them… it would be improper to require the consent of the National Legislature, because they may abuse their power and refuse their consent on that very account.”

–George Mason, 1787 Constitutional Convention, Debate Over Future Amendments June 11, 1787

Alexander Hamilton

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

–Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1,
Independent Journal, October 27, 1787

“Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?”

–James Madison, Federalist #14
New York Packet, November 30, 1787

Critics of the 1787 Federal Constitutional Convention

Patrick Henry

“I smell a rat.” (Explaining his refusal to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia)

–Patrick Henry, Virginia state legislator, 1787 

Post 20th Century State Constitutional Convention Scholars

“[T]he great contributions to constitutionalism that Americans in the revolutionary era made to the world [were] the modern idea of a constitution as a written document, the device of a convention for creating and amending constitutions, the process of popular ratification, and the practice of judicial review.”

–Gordon S. Wood, “Eighteenth Century American Constitutionalism,”
This Constitution,Office of the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, 1987.  

“If I were called upon to select a single fact or enterprise which more nearly than any other single thing embraced the significance of the American Revolution I should select–not Saratoga or the French alliance, or even the Declaration of Independence–I should choose the formation of the Massachusetts��Constitution of 1780, and I should do so because that constitution rested upon the fully developed convention, the greatest institution of government which America has produced, the institution which answered, in itself, the problem of how men could make government of their own free will.”

–Andrew C. McLaughlin, president of the American Historical Association,
American Historical Review, 1914

“What has been the record of state constitutional conventions held in this country?  Ironically, the greatest charge leveled at constitutional conventions is not their inclination to experiment with change to propose extreme ideas or structures, but their conservatism.  An examination of the proposals originating from these conventions provide little or no support for the view that state constitutional conventions constitute a danger to the values that comprise the American constitutional tradition.”

–Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst, Changing State Constitutions, Hofstra Law & Policy Symposium 27 (1996), p. 38

“Like virtue, simplification has few professed enemies. Yet the New York experience with successively longer constitutions and progressively more numerous constitutional amendments demonstrates how elusive is the goal of simplification.  The difficulty seems to be that each special-interest group favors simplification in the abstract, but not in the area of its own special concern….  Ordinarily, it is only in a convention that there is an opportunity for the kind of reflective overview that permits reorganization of the whole document, consolidation of the related, and elimination of the unnecessary.”

–Robert B McKay, “Constitutional Revision in New York State: Disaster in 1967,”
Syracuse L. Rev. 19 (1967), pages 214, 221.

“Some fear a constitutional convention because it exposes the entire structure of government to the threat of change.  In theory, no holds are barred and every provision of the constitution is in jeopardy.  Reality, however, is much more benign than theory.”

–Eugene M. Van Loan III, “Amending the Constitution by Convention,”
New Hampshire Bar Journal 42 (2001), p. 57

“The people in each generation are entitled to solve their own political problems or even to make their own mistakes….  As believers in democracy, we should have sufficient confidence in our own people to give them the utmost freedom to decide when to have constitutional conventions and whether or not to approve the changes recommended.”

–Hindman, Wilbert I., “Road-Blocks to Conventions,”
Address before the National Municipal League, Nashville, TN, November 14, 1947.

Pre-20th Century Thinkers

Thomas Paine

“The English Parliament of 1688 did a certain thing, which, for themselves and their constituents, they had a right to do, and which it appeared right should be done. But, in addition to this right, which they possessed by delegation, they set up another right by assumption, that of binding and controlling posterity to the end of time. The case, therefore, divides itself into two parts; the right which they possessed by delegation, and the right which they set up by assumption. The first is admitted; but with respect to the second, I reply: There never did, there never will, and there never can, exist a Parliament, or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the “end of time,” or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed, or who shall govern it; and therefore all such clauses, acts or declarations by which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The Parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated. When man ceases to be, his power and his wants cease with him; and having no longer any participation in the concerns of this world, he has no longer any authority in directing who shall be its governors, or how its government shall be organised, or how administered….

The illuminating and divine principle of the equal rights of man (for it has its origin from the Maker of man) relates, not only to the living individuals, but to generations of men succeeding each other. Every generation is equal in rights to generations which preceded it, by the same rule that every individual is born equal in rights with his contemporary.”

–Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791

Jean Jacques Rousseau

“It is not enough for the people assembled to have once settled the constitution of the State by giving sanction to a body of laws: it is not enough for it to have established a perpetual Government or to have provided once and for all for the election of magistrates…. [T]here must be fixed and periodic assemblies which nothing can abolish or prorogue….

[T]he Prince derives a great advantage in preserving its power in spite of the people, without its being possible to say that the Prince has usurped that power: For in appearing to use only its rights, the Prince can very easily expand them and, on the pretext of public calm, prevent assemblies…. [I]t is by this simple means that all governments of the world, once they are invested with the public force, sooner or later usurp the Sovereign authority.

 

The periodic assemblies of which I have spoken above are suited to forestall or postpone this misfortune.…”

–Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, 1762

Charles Francis Adams

“We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities.”

–Charles Francis Adams, The Life of John Adams, 1871

Blaise Pascal

“Those whom we call ancient were really new in all things, and properly constituted the infancy of mankind; and as we have joined to their knowledge the experience of centuries which have followed them, it is ourselves that we should find this antiquity we revere in others.”

–Blaise Pascal, Preface to the Treatise on Vacuum, 1651

Post 20th Century Politicians

“Constitutional revision is not for the faint of heart. It is not a Sunday drive in the mountains. It is an incredibly difficult, sometimes tedious, sometimes exhilarating, always a challenging undertaking….  I almost would go so far as to say that the confluence of factors needed to bring about the ratification of a new state constitution approaches that needed for the creation of life itself!”

–George D. Busbee, Georgia Governor,
An Overview of the New Georgia Constitution, 35 Mercer Law Review,1983

 

Statue of Thomas Jefferson

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC, adjacent to a quote from Jefferson expressing his often articulated view that constitutions should be living documents.

Solon the Law Giver

Statue of Solon representing “Law” in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building, Washington, DC. Other statues in the Jefferson Building represent Religion, History, Art, Philosophy, and Science. Solon ruled Athens, Greece in the 6th Century BC and is often credited as the founder of Athenian democracy.

Statue of Jean Jacques Rousseau

The statue of Jean Jacques Rousseau on the Île Rousseau, Geneva, Switzerland.  Rousseau explained the importance of periodicity in the convening of legislative and constituent assemblies.