America’s founders and climate change

Was their original intent to protect the country from environmental dangers?

For many, understanding how America’s original leaders would have stood on key current issues — including climate change — remains a hot topic. (Credit: Howard Chandler Christy)

What would the founding fathers do about climate change?

That might seem like an odd question, considering the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams died some two centuries ago. From smartphones to space travel, the world we live in now would be nearly unrecognizable to them.

And, yet, so many people still crave their opinions in figuring out our modern politics and policy. This was particularly apparent during President Donald Trump’s recent impeachment proceedings. The House conducted an entire hearing on the original intent of the founders, with constitutional scholars testifying. A broad spectrum of media outlets, including (but certainly not limited to) The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and The Washington Times, also spent time on the topic.

The desire to channel the founders in other areas is common as well. Whether it’s the economy, the military or the president’s positions on trade and immigration, pundits have tried to predict what the original framers of our Constitution would have thought about today’s activities. As National Review Senior Editor and historian Richard Brookhiser wrote in 2006, whenever he speaks publicly, there is invariably “at least one question of the form, ‘What would Founder X think about current event or living person Y?’”

Since this is a popular parlor game, it’s worth exploring what the United States’ earliest leaders thought about environmental issues, centuries before the climate crisis emerged as a top issue.

Of course, it’s impossible to get a definitive answer, but there are multiple examples of the founders imploring Americans to show Mother Nature respect. For instance, in 1818, a year after he left the oval office, James Madison spoke passionately about the environment in a speech to the Agriculture Society in Albermarle, Va. “Nature … [is] not subservient to the use of man,” he explained, according to author Andrea Wulf, and she said he “called upon his fellow citizens to protect the environment.”

Benjamin Franklin also had conservation worries. He feared that blindly cross-cutting forests would lead to a “loss of wood.” This vexed Franklin so much that it inspired him to invent a fuel-efficient fireplace.

For Thomas Jefferson, sustaining a world as unspoiled as the one he’d experienced was an important consideration. In a letter penned to Madison in 1789, Jefferson employed the very big word, usufruct, which means “the right to use or enjoy something,” to make this point.

It would be wrong, he wrote, for any man, “during his own life, [to] eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come.” If that happened, Jefferson concluded, “then the lands would belong to the dead rather than the living, which would be the reverse of our principal.”

This philosophy, that each generation has a right to an environment that is no worse than its predecessor, is one that some legal scholars have tried to apply to the Constitution.

(Credit: U.S. Air Force illustration/James Borland)

Originalism has become a tremendously popular form of constitutional interpretation in recent years. This philosophy requires a strict adherence to how the document “was originally written,” according to the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

That said, when the “evident meaning of the words” in that document isn’t so clear, people may apply other factors. The Heritage Foundation explains that these include: “The words in the context of the political philosophy shared by the Founding generation…” and the “historical practice by the Founding generation to exemplify the understood meaning.”

Consider the preamble to the Constitution through the lens of Madison’s and Jefferson’s comments, and it may very well suggest that we must protect the environment for future generations. That hallowed text called for Americans to both “promote the general welfare” and “secure the blessings of liberty” not only for “ourselves” but also for “our posterity.”

An argument can be made that safeguarding the general welfare and the blessings of liberty in the United States for those to come requires doing our part to protect the planet. As any originalist who read Jefferson’s 1789 letter to Madison could see, this was surely Jefferson’s hope (and, based on Madison’s own words, likely his as well).

To date, this argument has not swayed courts as the preamble “has never been regarded as the source of any substantive power conferred on the Government,” according to one U.S. Supreme Court decision. As the website for the U.S. federal court system puts it: “The preamble is an introduction to the highest law of the land; it is not the law.”

While a change in that interpretation would be great, it’s not necessary to make a difference. We can still create laws that fight global warming or protect our natural world without having a specific constitutional mandate.

And, as we grapple with the effects of climate change, we must do so regardless of our interpretation of what our forefathers might have thought. After all, our ability to “usufruct” the land we live on is already diminishing. If we do not prioritize climate action, the question will no longer be how do we secure the blessing of liberty for our posterity. Instead, we’ll need to ask how to do so for ourselves.



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Josh Chetwynd

Josh Chetwynd


Communications for The Public Interest Network, Environment America and U.S. PIRG; book author: ; avid curler/ex-baseball player