Historians say a North Dakota legislator was completely wrong when he claimed during a debate on the House floor that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Constitution.
“It is a serious historical error,” said Jefferson scholar Clay Jenkinson, though he noted that it’s a frequent “honest mistake.”
Rep. Luke Simons (R-Dickinson) brought up the Constitution while arguing in the state House on Jan. 27 in favor of eliminating DUI checkpoints.
“When I swore to uphold the Constitution, I meant to do so,” Simons said, adding that he has personally taught “Constitution study classes.”
Simons continued: “The Constitution was wrote on an 8th Grade education. Not that Thomas Jefferson, the smartest man to live 100 years prior or 100 years after his life — couldn’t do that, but he did so that the peoples could understand that.” (Grammatical errors are his.)
Jefferson did not write the Constitution. He was in France during the entirety of the Constitutional Convention when the Constitution was written, in secrecy, in 1787. When Jefferson eventually read the Constitution, he didn’t like it.
“He had a number of concerns about the new Constitution and was not happy with it and actually urged that it be sent back for revision,” said Jenkinson, who portrays Jefferson on The Thomas Jefferson Hour, a radio show broadcast on Prairie Public. “From a simple factual matter, it’s unmistakable that Jefferson was not one of the authors of the Constitution of the United States.”
Mark Harvey, the head of the history department at North Dakota State University, agreed.
“Simons is completely wrong. Jefferson did NOT write the U.S. Constitution; there were multiple authors amongst the delegates to the 1787 Constitution Convention in Philadelphia,” he wrote in an email. James Madison was one of them.
The historians also disagreed with Simons’s claim that the Constitution was written on an 8th Grade level.
“That of course is just not true,” Jenkinson says. “The Constitution, the 55 men who met were amongst the best-educated people in American history and they were not trying to write this for an 8th Grade capacity. They did want to write it in a way that was accessible to the broad range of the public.”
“It was hardly written on an 8th grade level,” Harvey said. “I don’t have any idea what Simons means by this.”
Jefferson lobbied for the Bill of Rights, and wrote the Declaration of Independence. But on the question of whether he wrote the Constitution, the answer is a clear “no.”
“It’s a simple slip and an honest mistake, and it happens quite frequently,” Jenkinson said. “But the irony of it is that Jefferson wasn’t there.”
Let this be a lesson to politicians who want to cite Jefferson to boost their arguments: the next time you invoke his name, please know what you’re talking about.
Simons didn’t answer a request for comment.