Can a Dead Constitution Bind the Living?


Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that the earth belongs to the living. His letter to James Madison is often quoted for the proposition that we should not be bound to the “dead hand of the past,” suggesting that the Constitution should instead be interpreted as a living, breathing document. Less well known is Madison’s response, in which he said that the Constitution forms a debt against the living, who take the benefit of it. This debt, Madison claimed, could only be discharged by a kind of originalism.

Who is right? Thomas Jefferson or James Madison?

Please join us for a conversation with Ilan Wurman, a visiting assistant professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and author of A Debt Against the Living: An Introduction to Originalism, to discuss this question as well as the latest scholarship and problems in originalism. Stanford law professor and former federal judge Michael W. McConnell has described the book as the first “to explain to the ordinary citizen—free from what the late Justice Antonin Scalia called ‘jiggery pokery’—what it means to understand the Constitution as enduring law rather than politics by a different name.”


A limited number of books will be available for sale at the event.

Breakfast will be served. Please RSVP online.