Sunday, October 25, 2009

Founders? What Founders?

By James Madison
American Creation guest blogger

"Key" Founding Father
"Father of the Constitution"
Former US President

[Our friend and frequent commenter Ben Abbott writes: "I will comment that I think it improper for anyone to claim, or imply, the founders would favor their world view.."

"World view?" That's an unnecessarily big thing. But we can consult the Founders on what our "social contract," the US Constitution, was understood to mean by those who signed it and drafted it, yes? Let's look at the record...]

Veto of federal public works bill
March 3, 1817

To the House of Representatives of the United States:

Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled "An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements," and which sets apart and pledges funds "for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense," I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives, in which it originated.

The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation with the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.

"Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them..."

"The power to regulate commerce among the several States" can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms strengthened by the known inconveniences which doubtless led to the grant of this remedial power to Congress.

To refer the power in question to the clause "to provide for common defense and general welfare" would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms "common defense and general welfare" embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared "that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.

A restriction of the power "to provide for the common defense and general welfare" to cases which are to be provided for by the expenditure of money would still leave within the legislative power of Congress all the great and most important measures of Government, money being the ordinary and necessary means of carrying them into execution.

If a general power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses, with the train of powers incident thereto, be not possessed by Congress, the assent of the States in the mode provided in the bill can not confer the power. The only cases in which the consent and cession of particular States can extend the power of Congress are those specified and provided for in the Constitution.

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

James Madison,
President of the United States


Naum said...

There you go again… …grafting 18th century thinking to a 21st century conflict.

Madison also stated that standing armies were evil incarnated…

For your Madison, I lay down a few Jefferson quotes:

"[We proposed a plan] to avail the commonwealth of those talents and virtues which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as rich, and which are lost to their country by the want of means for their cultivation." --Thomas Jefferson: Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:440

"The annual tribute we are paying to other countries for the education of our youth, the retention of that sum at home, and receipt of a greater from abroad which might flow to an University on an approved scale, would make it a gainful employment of the money advanced, were even dollars and cents to mingle themselves with the consideration of an higher order urging the accomplishment of this institution." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1819. ME 19:386

"Our institution will proceed on the principle of doing all the good it can without consulting its own pride or ambition; of letting everyone come and listen to whatever he thinks may improve the condition of his mind." --Thomas Jefferson to George Ticknor, 1823. ME 15:455

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness... The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:396

"[Surely no] tax can be called that which we give to our children in the most valuable of all forms, that of instruction... An addition to our contributions almost insensible... in fact, will not be felt as a burden, because applied immediately and visibly to the good of our children." --Thomas Jefferson: Note to Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:422

"The truth is that the want of common education with us is not from our poverty, but from the want of an orderly system. More money is now paid for the education of a part than would be paid for that of the whole if systematically arranged." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1820. ME 15:291

"People generally have more feeling for canals and roads than education. However, I hope we can advance them with equal pace." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1807. ME 11:401

"I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country, under such regulations as would secure their safe return in due time." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wyche, 1809. ME 12:282

Of course, the mass medium of the day, the post office was almost fully subsidized and federal coffers used to pay for party organ newspapers…

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Madison has the floor as our guest blogger, so don't change the subject, Mr. Naum. The Constitution is far more Madison's and Jefferson was off in France at the time.

Take your objections up with Madison and leave me out of it. You're getting boring again.

Anonymous said...

This blog used to be fair. It used to be worth-wile. It used to be objective. It used to be fun to read.

Not anymore. Posts like this are making it smell like dead fish, and as B. Franklin said, "blogs that smell like fish die off fairly quick.

Sorry you made the decision to intentionally SUCK!

King of Ireland said...


This comment does nothing because it is too vague. What is your concern in detail? Then maybe it can be addressed.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well I don't think anyone can look at the original meaning of the commerce clause and conclude that it wasn't "reimagined" in the New Deal.

I'm someone who believes the Founders wrote PARTS of the Constitution, esp. the BOR with broad general terms because they probably thought later generations would have to sort out the particulars.

However the Commerce Clause doesn't seem one of them.

Even if we disagree with current Court interpretation, "the Freedom of Speech" by its very text could bear lots of understandings.

"Regulate commerce among the several states..."? I have a hard time seeing how the very text of the Constitution applies to wholly intrastate activity at all.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, how UNFAIR to use the Founders in their own words!

And mr. Naum, in cherry-picking [his term] quotes from Jefferson, missed these:

“Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”

"Still one thing more, fellow-citizens--a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government..."

"...economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened..."

and to return to Madison:

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.”

“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

Dead fish, indeed.

Naum said...

None of what was posted discounted the vast difference in terrain of commerce and technology.

Founders (Jefferson + Hamilton) chartered the complete subsidy of their "mainstream media" of the day and funded newspapers straight from the federal coffers…

And they might be aghast at how backwater states could throw a monkey into the wrench of achieving anything…

Throwing quotes or short quips around doesn't prove anything…

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually I printed a lengthy piece by Madison here. 'Twas you who threw around quotes, and were obviously quote-mining, since you missed the most relevant Jefferson quote on the issue.

Yet you accuse me of cherry-picking quotes! The nerve. Plus you attempted to make great hay of a minor error that I corrected immediately, yet here you are, caught red-handed at your own game, and don't even acknowledge it, moving on to another irrelevant argument about newspapers.

I don't mind substantive disagreement, and in fact I welcome it, but you're clearly not interested in the truth of these matters, only scoring partisan debating points.

So if you have nothing to offer but slime---slime you're guilty of, not me---please take it to the Daily Kos or wherever you learned your manners, where it'll fit right in.

Naum said...


You keep repeating this "Daily Kos" tripe, but it is not a site I've cited or even one I frequent…

And yet you are one that plastered on the front page here, a deplorable tea bagger theme, linked to a teabagger-phoria Beck / Palin / $otherIncendiaryConservative site that makes Daily Kos look objective in comparison all inspired by a hoax that in ideological partisan zeal you pounced on…


bpabbott said...


I'm guessing that what I had intended to imply was not wat you inferred.

When I wrote "I will comment that I think it improper for anyone to claim, or imply, the founders would favor their world view.." I did not mean that the founders did not favor a world view of their own. Only that I find it improper for any of us to attempt to substantiate our own world views by associating them with the founders.

By doing such (imo) we introduce a deconstructive and dividing element into the discussion.

If we have good ideas, I'm confident we can substantiate them without a plead to authority.

So as not to imply otherwise, my comments are not intended to be an affront to your views.

In any event, I appreciate the loose association with Madison ;-)

He is my favorite framer!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Naum, your attempt to shout down the facts isn't working. Your quote-mining missed the most relevant Jefferson quote, and you refuse acknowledge that. I corrected my error immediately; you refuse to correct yours atall.

Instead, you return to rhetorical overblow ["deplorable" and "teabagger" again], as if shouting louder makes for truth.

I give you the time of day only to expose the tactics of your tribe---Daily Kos being only representative of that [and your non-denial denial betrays you're familiar with it, unsurprisingly, so once again you're being slippery and not straightforward].

It seems the fatal flaw of the modern left that they assume folks are even dumber than they are and cannot see through them. But you're as clear as glass, my friend, and as naked as a jaybird.


Mr. Abbott, citing the source documents of our social contract isn't a fallacious appeal to authority---it's the pure approach to history. [Citing 21st century scholars as definitive would be an "appeal to authority."]

I realize that in actually looking at Founding-era documents, "we introduce a deconstructive and dividing element into the discussion." Folks like Mr. Naum cry foul when the facts are not on their side.

I realize that seems unfair to them, that surely they're not losing the argument fair and square, so they roll out every sophistic trick in the book, starting with attacking the messenger, claiming "out of context" when the context is clear, disputing the meaning of terms when their meaning is well-established, and when all that fails, come to a history blog and claim history is irrelevant.

But the provenance of our social contract is quite relevant, except to those who want to rewrite it.

That you think Madison is "loosely" relevant will do. Anything but steamrollering over him.