State’s Rights and Federal Power

There’s no doubt the federal government of the United States is bloated beyond anything the Founding Fathers ever intended.  For example, Benjamin Franklin wrote in response to a scornful letter from some Englishmen, who were our enemies at the time,

The weight, therefore, of an independent empire, which you seem certain of our inability to bear, will not be so great as you imagine; the expense of our civil government we have always borne, and can easily bear, because it is small. A virtuous and laborious people may be cheaply governed, determining, as we do, to have no offices of profit, nor any sinecures, or useless appointments, so common in ancient or corrupted states. We can govern ourselves a year for the sum you pay in a single department, for what one jobbing contractor, by the favour of a minister, can cheat you out of in a single article.

James Madison, a major architect of the Constitution, rejected the broad interpretation of the General Welfare clause that later became an essential rationalization for the cancerous growth of government.  As noted in Wikipedia,

Madison vetoed on states’ rights grounds a bill for “internal improvements,” including roads, bridges, and canals:

Having considered the bill … I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States…. The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified … in the … Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.[27]

Madison rejected the view of Congress that the General Welfare provision of the Taxing and Spending Clause justified the bill, stating:

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.

As noted at OffMyFrontPorch, he also wrote the the Federalist Paper, #45,

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite……The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

Jefferson was of like mind with respect to the meaning of the Taxing and Spending Clause, writing in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798,

Resolved, That the construction applied by the General Government (as is evidenced by sundry of their proceedings) to those parts of the Constitution of the United States which delegate to Congress a power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imports, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” and “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution, the powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof,” goes to the destruction of all limits prescribed to their powers by the Constitution: that words meant by the instrument to be subsidiary only to the execution of limited powers, ought not to be so construed as themselves to give unlimited powers, nor a part to be so taken as to destroy the whole residue of that instrument…

Even arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton wrote,

The State governments possess inherent advantages, which will ever give them an influence and ascendancy over the National Government, and will forever preclude the possibility of federal encroachments. That their liberties, indeed, can be subverted by the federal head, is repugnant to every rule of political calculation. (Speech to the New York Ratifying Convention, June 17, 1788)

But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the State governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States. (Federalist No. 32, January 3, 1788)

That and much more like it can be found in the writings of the men who actually drafted the Constitution, and nothing that supports the creation of a centralized state of the kind the United States has become today.  Such ideas are now labeled “extremist,” as is anyone who objects to the radical redefinition of government in the United States that has taken place since the New Deal.  The Taxing and Spending Clause became the key to the massive growth of a centralized state after all, and the Tenth Amendment has become a nullity.  To remedy the situation, some are now calling for a Constitutional Convention to reign in the power of the federal government.  It won’t happen, or at least not anytime soon.  Franklin Roosevelt managed to stay in power through almost four terms, in spite of his dismal performance in managing the economy until he was rescued by the start of World War II, by passing out benefits to favored blocs of voters, who could then be counted on to defend their own interests on election day, normally conflating them with the interests of the country.  Federal power will continue to expand for the same reason, and all the Tea Parties in the world won’t stop it.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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