1790: Secretary Jefferson and the Foreign Affairs Power

in A Community Built on Words

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print September 2002 | ISBN: 9780226677231
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226677224 | DOI:
1790: Secretary Jefferson and the Foreign Affairs Power

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  • Constitutional and Administrative Law


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Written constitutionalism, as the founders understood it, requires the creation of other texts, whether written or not, that connect the written Constitution with the propositions and commands attributed to it. The recurrent impulse throughout our nation's history to disavow the creation of these other texts in the name of allegiance to the Constitution alone is not in fact a return to the founders but a repudiation of their own practice. To see this point, this chapter turns to one of the earliest written interpretations of the Constitution as a governing document, a 1790 opinion by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The opinion is of special interest not only because of its date but also because of its author. Jefferson was a highly skilled lawyer as well as a distinguished statesman; in a 1790 letter, his cousin John Marshall described him as one of “the ablest men & soundest lawyers in America.”

Keywords: Constitution; written interpretations; secretary of state; Thomas Jefferson; foreign affairs; political power

Chapter.  4476 words. 

Subjects: Constitutional and Administrative Law

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