What is a Jefferson Meeting?

What is a Jefferson Meeting?
by John J. Patrick

Citizenship in the United States involves a deep and abiding commitment to constitutional democracy--popular government limited by the higher law of a Constitution to guard the rights and liberties of individuals. Under our federal system of government, we Americans have commitments to the Constitution of the United States and to a constitution of one of the fifty states. These commitments entail both reverence and reflection, attachment to enduring constitutional principles and critical thinking about issues of constitutional change.

In 1788, James Madison wrote about the importance of public respect, even reverence, for a worthy constitution, ". . . without which perhaps the wisest and freest government would not possess the requisite stability." Madison's dearest friend, Thomas Jefferson, preferred to emphasize critical thinking, choice, and change. In 1816, he wrote: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them . . . too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. . . . I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. . . . But . . . laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."

Background of the Jefferson Meeting

The Jefferson Meeting, a program to promote education about constitutional democracy, was instituted to honor Thomas Jefferson's belief in citizens' participation in the formation, operation, and alteration of their government. However, Jefferson shared James Madison's views about the importance of public attachment to enduring principles of a free government. So the Jefferson Meeting encourages both respect for principles of our constitutional democracy and constructive critical thinking about issues of constitutional change.
The Jefferson Meeting is a mock constitutional convention. Participants are expected to deliberate, discuss, and make choices about proposals to change the Constitution. Unlike a real constitutional convention, which may bring about tangible constitutional changes, the purpose of a Jefferson Meeting is education for responsible citizenship. The Jefferson Meeting on the Constitution was created in 1983 by Charles Bartlett, President of the Jefferson Foundation of Washington, D.C.

The original Jefferson Meeting focused on the Constitution of the United States. The Jefferson Meeting idea is also applicable to any constitution in a democracy. Thus, the Jefferson Meeting concept can be used for programs on any of the constitutions of the fifty state governments of the United States of America.

Why have a Jefferson Meeting on the Indiana Constitution?

Constitutional issues are inevitable in a free society, where citizens have the right and responsibility to express views about government and to participate in public life to advance their ideas. Anyone who would be a responsible and effective citizen in the United States must develop knowledge, intellectual capacities, and participation skills needed to cope with constitutional issues. Thus, the Jefferson Meeting on the Indiana Constitution is an exercise in education for responsible and effective citizenship because it provides practice in dealing with significant issues of state government.

Participants in a Jefferson Meeting

  • acquire knowledge about their constitutional government that is needed to take intelligent positions on issues and make informed choices about them;
  • develop cognitive skills in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation that are needed to identify and clarify issues, ask probing questions about them, evaluate the consequences of alternative proposals, and make rational decisions;
  • develop participation skills in communication, persuasion, and compromise that are needed to work effectively in committees and large public forums.

The Continuing Challenge of Constitutional Choice and Change

Article 16 of the Constitution of Indiana provides that constitutional amendments can be made only with the consent of a majority of the state's eligible voters. So, Indiana voters have the power and duty to decide about the content of their state Constitution.
This right and responsibility of constitutional choice is consistent with an observation of Alexander Hamilton in the first essay of The Federalist:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Americans of the eighteenth century showed that they had the requisite inclinations and abilities "to decide the important question" of constitutional choice. Can we Americans moving toward the twenty-first century do as well as they did, or even better, in maintaining and expanding upon the principles of constitutional democracy?

Participants in the Jefferson Meeting on the Indiana Constitution have an educational experience that prepares them to accept and exercise well their challenging right and responsibility of dealing with issues of constitutional choice and change.

What Happens at Indiana Close Up?

No, government's obligation to preserve the environment does not outweigh an individual's right to unrestricted use of property.

1. Government regulations infringe upon individual property rights.

Private property should be kept private. The government should stay out of this area. If a property owner wishes to use or sell his property, as long as it is done legally, the government should not be involved. Natural minerals, land formations, plants and animals on the land should all reside with the ownership rights of the individual. How can the government or an environmental group tell property owners that they cannot use the property as they wish? Wetlands, plant and animal life, land formations have all been protected in the name of preservation. Yet what of the rights of the individual? What of the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and of the 1851 Indiana Constitution noted on page 3? Is this state intervention in conflict with the individual pursuit of happiness?

2. Government regulations on use of private property impede economic growth.

Economic growth also depends on the use of private property. If a property owner wishes to use property to produce economic growth, the nation will prosper. This economic growth will help all citizens, and our gross national product will increase. Why should a spotted owl be allowed to impede the lumber industry or limestone formations inhibit the construction of a major highway? Have we lost perspective when we allow plants or animals or land formations to become more important than the rights of individuals to utilize private property as they wish? Individual rights and economic growth should not be sacrificed to the environment.

If we must preserve and protect plant and animal species and land formations, let us do so with a plan mutually beneficial to all parties. Let economic growth occur, protect individual property rights, and find compatible solutions to preserve our resources.

Advance preparation

Three issues of interest related to the Indiana Constitution are selected as the basis for the meeting. Before Close Up day, teachers and students study the three issue essays, discuss the questions that are included, read related materials, and practice some good techniques for discussion and debate. All students should arrive prepared to discuss all three issues so that they can participate in any issue committee and contribute to an exciting debate in the plenary sessions.

Participation in an issue committee

After an opening speaker, each issue committee focuses on one issue. The goal of this session is to encourage discussion that enables students to form an opinion on the issue--to address the issue statement with concise, coherent reasoning. Students divide into two groups, one pro and one con. Each group lines up its arguments and chooses which speaker will address which point. The resource leaders' and facilitators' roles are to support and enhance the students' experience. To encourage exchange of ideas with students from around the state, a limited number of students from any one school are placed in the same issue group.

Participation in a plenary session

After a quick lunch, committees representing each of the three issues come together to form a plenary session. This is the heart of Indiana Close Up in which the students from each issue committee present their conclusions about their particular issue to their peers. Audience participation and discussion are encouraged.

Close Up in the Classroom

Constance Holland, Bloomington High School South, requires her classes in advance to:

  • Read the materials on all three issues and the Introduction to Indiana Close Up.
  • Collect current news stories that relate to the issues.
  • Write a single page summary of each issue.
  • Take a stand/position on each issue.
  • To attend Indiana Close Up

As follow Up

  • Write a detailed description of all activities that occur at Indiana Close Up.
  • Did you change you position on any of the issues after you attended Indiana Close Up?
  • Discuss the entire activity as a learning experience.
  • Your report must be a minimum of five pages but not more than seven pages.

This type of classroom activity encourages thoughtful preparation, analysis, and evaluation of the Close Up issues and experience.

Many classes invite community leaders as guest speakers in preparation for Close Up day. Students then have the opportunity to hear a number of informed opinions on the issues to be debated.

The internet is valuable tool in gathering information about the issues.

Job Descriptions


  1. convenes the issue committee and, briefly, describes discussion techniques. (5 minutes)
  2. introduces the Resource Leader and participates in the resource leader-led discussion, as needed, in order to "get it started" and encourage student participation.
  3. acts as liaison with Indiana Historical Bureau staff to address any difficulties that may come up.
  4. works with either the pro or con group to
    • answer questions;
    • serve as a sounding board for ideas;
    • ensure that a floor manager and group recorder have been selected; and
    • help the group develop concise points for each speaker with minimum repetition and within the time constraints.
  5. reconvenes issue committee as a whole to report pro and con group conclusions.
  6. at the conclusion of the issue meeting, collects the floor managers' lists of pro and con speakers and takes to the staff at the registration desk before lunch.
  7. adjourns committee and gets students to their quick lunch on time.

Resource Leader

  1. presents a review of the issue, including both sides of the question. (about 5 minutes)
  2. asks questions of the whole group and encourages discussion that enables students to form a pro or a con stance toward the question. (10-15 minutes)
  3. works with either the pro or con group to
    • answer questions;
    • serve as a sounding board for ideas;
    • ensure that a floor manager and group recorder have been selected;
    • and help the group develop concise points for each speaker with minimum repetition and within the time constraints.

Student Floor Managers (2)

  1. leads group discussion within each pro and con group working with facilitator or resource leader.
  2. makes sure speakers are selected for the plenary session (volunteers or draw lots), determines their order of speaking, and has recorder write it neatly for plenary leaders.
  3. works with facilitator or resource leader to ensure that group speakers have determined points to cover based on group input and within time frame allowed.
  4. gives list of speakers to facilitator before lunch.
  5. at the plenary session makes sure that speakers are ready with their materials and at the podium to speak on time.

Student Group Recorders (2)

  1. Works with floor manager to record names of speakers and their schools and the order of speaking in the plenary session.
  2. Works with floor manager to record highlights of group discussion, to record the points speakers will make in the plenary session, and to provide help to selected speakers.

Plenary Session Leader

  1. Reviews the schedule and procedure of the plenary session with the group.
  2. Summarizes procedures for presentations by issue committee speakers.
  3. Presides over the session, recognizes speakers on the speaker lists provided by floor managers, and recognizes additional speakers in the audience.
  4. Provides closure/summation, for the entire Indiana Close Up day, since the whole group does not have an opportunity to come together again.
  5. Dismisses students on time.

Plenary Assistant

  1. Assists plenary leader as needed.
  2. Contacts Indiana Historical Bureau staff regarding any difficulties.

Plenary Timekeeper

  1. Picks up the stop watch and time signage from the Registration Desk after lunch.
  2. Sits near the front of the room facing the speakers, so that time notifications are visible to the speaker and the plenary leader.
  3. Returns stop watch and time signage to Registration Desk at conclusion of plenary session.

©Indiana Historical Bureau 1995