To Henry Lee
Montpellier, June 25, 1824.
I have received, Sir, your letter of the 18th, inclosing the proposal of
a new publication, under the title of "American Gazette & Literary
Journal." Of the prospectus I cannot say less than that it is an interesting
specimen of cultivated talents.
I must say at the same time that I think it concedes too much to a
remedial power in the press over the spirit of party.
Besides the occasional and transient subjects on which parties are
formed, they seem to have a permanent foundation in the variance of political
opinions in free States, and of occupations and interests in all civilized
States. The Constitution itself, whether written or prescriptive, influenced as
its exposition and administration will be, by those causes, must be an
unfailing source of party distinctions. And the very peculiarity which gives
pre-eminent value to that of the United States, the partition of power between
different governments, opens a new door for controversies and parties. There is
nevertheless sufficient scope for combating the spirit of party, as far as it
may not be necessary to fan the flame of liberty, in efforts to divert it from
the more noxious channels; to moderate its violence, especially in the
ascendant party; to elucidate the policy which harmonizes jealous interests;
and particularly to give to the Constitution that just construction, which,
with the aid of time and habit, may put an end to the more dangerous schisms
otherwise growing out of it.
With a view to this last object, I entirely concur in the propriety of
resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by
the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that
be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent
and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers. If the meaning of
the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the words composing it, it is
evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the
changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly
subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its
ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense And that the language
of our Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its
founders, will I believe appear to all unbiased Enquirers into the history of
its origin and adoption. Not to look farther for an example, take the word
"consolidate" in the Address of the Convention prefixed to the Constitution. It
there and then meant to give strength and solidity to the Union of the States.
In its current & controversial application it means a destruction of the
States, by transfusing their powers into the government of the Union.
On the other point touched in your letter, I fear I shall not very soon
be able to say anything. Notwithstanding the importance of such a work as that
of Judge Johnson, and the public standing of the author, I have never given it
a reading. I have put it off, as in several other voluminous cases, till I
could go through the task with a less broken attention. While I find that the
span of life is contracting much faster than the demands on it can be
discharged, I do not however abandon the proposed perusal of both the "Life of
Greene," and "the Campaign of 1781."