Monday, January 24, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant on the living Constitution

I have been reading on my Kindle The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, downloaded from, that magnificent online repository of classical texts converted to e-books. This morning I came across the following passage:

The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented, sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze -- but the application of steam to propel vessels against both wind and current, and the machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances have changed as greatly as material ones. We could not and ought not to be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable. They would surely have resisted secession could they have lived to see the shape it assumed.

Grant wrote that piece of wisdom before 1885, when his Memoirs were published. It shows that for at least 125 years, the ablest Americans have been advocating a "living Constitution," interpreting the document in light of the realities of the day rather than embracing the rigid and unimaginative "originalist" viewpoint (currently espoused by the Tea Party and its hero Antonin Scalia) that the meanings of its phrases and clauses are graven in stone and immutable.

Our greatest general was not only perceptive and farsighted, but also wrote beautifully. His modest "plain style" of prose is still remarkably readable, and becomes the man as well as the book. I am enjoying his Memoirs immensely.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Henry. I've bookmarked the U S Grant ebook!

    I just came across a blog commentor who is also reading the Gutenberg Grant (Mike H's comments a few hours ago about whether the possibility of decentralized living was killed off by Ronald Reagon or the 19th C. Rail & telegraph systems):
    "At the end of his memoir (1884), Grant muses that the decentralized system that enabled free states and slave states to coexist in the early USA was gone forever because of "rapid transit" - railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph."