Friday, March 5, 2010

Dear Mr. 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." --James Madison, letter to Edmund Pendleton, 1792

Kent comments:

If I could bring Mr. Madison back for questions (wouldn’t that be fun!) I would ask in response to the above, “You mean like the one we have now?”

Sometimes when I read history I get a bit upset with the Founders.  I start to think that they did not make the fact of limited, enumerated powers clear enough in our Constitution.  I start to muse about how they could have made the matter more clear.

I do that in light of the fact that almost no one from any party today really believes that the powers of Congress are limited by their enumeration in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.  That one clause of the Preamble - ‘promote the general welfare’ – is taken to mean that all bets are off for whatever might come in the body of the Constitution.  Congress, it is often said, can do anything it thinks proper to promote ‘welfare’ – whatever that might be.

As Mr. Madison says above, this effectively gives Congress political omnipotence.

So I often wonder why the Founders didn’t, for example, add a clause to the Preamble saying, “This is just an introduction to the overall purpose of this document.  The allowable means to these ends is stated in the body of the document.”

Well, (I answer myself) for one thing, that would make the Constitution sound stupid.

Then I remind myself that pieces of paper can never hinder people from anything.  When people no longer wish to abide by the terms of the Constitution, they will not.  It’s not just those evil politicians in Washington who are to blame for trashing the Constitution.  (There is plenty of blame for them, of course.)  Most Americans want what they want.  Many of them have no idea what the Constitution says.  Many more of them do not care what it says.

Constitutions are no barrier to tyrants unless a significant number of the people understand liberty and love it.  In our situation, you can certainly expect to get what we’ve got.

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