Justice Marshall: Framers devised defective government

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said Wednesday the framers of the Constitution created a government that was 'defective from the start' and lacked a profound vision for the fledgling nation.

In a speech to the San Francisco Patent and Trademark Law Association on the island of Maui, Marshall said it is the evolution of the law that has brought civil liberties to all Americans -- and not the original document written in 1787.


'When contemporary Americans cite the Constitution, they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the framers barely began to construct two centuries ago,' Marshall said.

'The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights we hold as fundamental today.'

He added that the 'wisdom, foresight and sense of justice' of the framers was not 'particularly profound.'

Marshall warned that, while this year's bicentennial of the Constitution is reason to celebrate, citizens should not overlook the fact that the framers often compromised moral beliefs to get support for the document.


For example, he said, the Southern states acceded to the demands of the New England states to give Congress broad power to regulate commerce in exchange for the right to continue the slave trade.

'It took a bloody civil war before the 13th Amendment could be adopted to abolish slavery, though not the consequences slavery would have for future Americans,' he said.

The speech added Marshall's voice to the debate over the Constitution and whether it should be interpreted according to the original intent of the drafters or as a living and breathing document that changes with the times.

Marshall said it is changing legal principles that have brought rights to women and blacks, who were not allowed to vote under the original Constitution.

Blacks won the right to vote under the 15th Amendment in 1870. Women's suffrage was achieved in 1920.

'The men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 could not have envisioned these changes,' said Marshall, the court's first black justice. 'They could not have imagined, not would they have accepted, that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and the descendant of an African slave.'


'I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document,' Marshall said, 'including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights.'

Latest Headlines