Thomas Jefferson Wrote What? Carson’s Constitutional Misstep

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during the 20/20 Club Presidential Justice Forum at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, on November 21. Carson recently attributed the writing of the U.S. Constitution to Thomas Jefferson, who was a major figure in early American history but was absent from the Constitutional Convention. Chris Keane/REUTERS

Be honest: Do you know who wrote the U.S. Constitution?

It’s a bit of a trick question, because there isn’t a sole author. That fact appeared to be lost on Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson when he said during a recent interview that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, “tried to craft our Constitution in a way that it would control people’s natural tendencies and control the natural growth of the government.”

Carson wrote about the Constitution in his book A More Perfect Union, a volume centered around the idea of “reclaim[ing] our constitutional liberties” in the post-Obamacare, post–legalization of gay marriage world. In the book, he acknowledges a historical fact: Jefferson did not even attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, during which more than 50 delegates from the states gathered to revise the Articles of Confederation and ultimately framed the nation’s founding document. Speaking to C-SPAN, Carson either forgot his own words, misspoke or betrayed some level of confusion about the nation’s early history. (A More Perfect Union was written “with” Candy Carson, his wife, who has co-authored several of his books.)

Many people think James Madison authored the Constitution, but in reality he was only the chief framer, the main strategist behind a group of delegates known as the Federalists, who ultimately convinced all in attendance at the Constitutional Convention to throw out the Articles of Confederation entirely and start with a new document. The Bill of Rights—the source of the constitutional rights that Carson talks about reclaiming and defending from the modern U.S. government—was appended only after the Constitution was composed, though the idea for one was debated throughout the monthslong convention. Madison thought that adding a Bill of Rights would be ineffective in preventing tyranny, but the convention ultimately caved in order to satisfy the Anti-Federalists, a contingent of delegates who opposed creating a stronger centralized federal government for the recently liberated states. Today, the Bill of Rights is the only part of the Constitution that most people can readily cite, since it includes protections of rights that many Americans enjoy, such as free speech and freedom of religion. (Carson’s rationale for opposing gay marriage is that it impinges on religious liberty.)

Jefferson is a favorite of Carson’s. He has quoted the third president of the United States to back up his positions on gun control and the size of the government. Jefferson is beloved by modern-day libertarians for his classically liberal political philosophy emphasizing the freedom of individuals (well, except for the slaves he owned).