Thomas Jefferson and James Madison's views on the interpretation of the Constitution (DBQ)

Topics: James Madison, War of 1812, United States Constitution Pages: 2 (605 words) Published: December 29, 2003
The general consensus among historians is that there was a difference of opinions between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison on the policies of the interpretation of the Constitution. It is generally believed that Thomas Jefferson felt that there should be strict and inflexible interpretation of the Constitution, while James Madison felt that the Constitution was elastic and that many different laws could be derived form a single clause. Their views, however, seemed to have switched over the period of 1801-1817 to fit the needs of the time, and so those beliefs were not really set in stone.

In the year 1800, Thomas Jefferson viewed the Constitution as a document that should be interpreted very strictly. He felt that the country could not be united if the Federalists were making so many interpretations of the words of the Constitution (Doc. A). He believed that the Constitution was made the way it was purposely because the Framers knew that that was how the country could best use it. An example of how he was a strict constructionist was in 1808 (in the middle of his presidency), when he created the phrase "separation between church and state." He felt that the Constitution does not provide the National Government with the right to impose religious laws upon the citizens (it can only make civil laws), and therefore those types of decisions are for the people to make for themselves (Doc. B).

Towards the end of Jefferson's presidency was when the Federalists really lost their power and when the Democratic-Republicans increased theirs. With the loss of power of his party, James Madison changed his opinion of flexible interpretation to strict, while Jefferson did the opposite. They switched opinions because each believed that, with the changing times, their new views would be more effective in governing. In 1814, a Federalist expressed this change when he felt that the broad use of phrases in the Constitution could become dangerous because the stretching of a...
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