Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Federalist 44 completes a series that examines specific grants of power to Congress. Madison identifies two classes of powers. One involves direct limits on the states; the other involves a direct grant to Congress and indirect limits on the states.

Among the first, Madison cites prohibitions—carried over from the Articles—against foreign policy by states, a practice that is inconsistent with even weak notions of union. A more significant innovation is the prohibition on the coinage of money and the use of paper currency (bills of credit). Such activities, he believes, can be carried out responsibly only by the national government, a conviction that, one trusts, would be shaken to its foundation were he alive today. His disquisition on the perils from profligate printing of paper money is illuminating:

“The loss which America has sustained since the peace, from the pestilent effects of paper money on the necessary confidence between man and man; on the necessary confidence in the public councils; on the industry and morals of the people, and on the character of republican government, constitutes an enormous debt against the states ….”

Why he believes that the federal government would be less scandalously addicted to easy money policies than states such as Rhode Island is difficult to fathom, and he undertakes no explanation. Presumably, he places his faith in the contest of interest groups spread throughout the large republic, especially debtors versus creditors, that would limit the likelihood of an extended “rage for paper money” that he condemned in Federalist 10. If so, he misjudges the effect on spending from “log-rolling,” “earmarks,” and patronage fostered by special interest groups and guarded by entrenched Congressional barons. Even if these factions were unlikely to influence the federal government individually, they quickly learned to act in concert, a habit that the pragmatic Framers either were derelict in ignoring or believed might be controlled through constitutional structures.

His explanation for the prohibitions of bills of attainder (legislative decrees of criminal guilt against an individual or group that were routinely used against political opponents in 16th and 17th century England) and of ex post facto laws (laws that retroactively criminalize conduct), as well as of laws that impair the obligation of contracts, is instructive. The last clause arose from experience with the practice by states to cancel public and private debts (at first those owed to British subjects, but later also obligations owed to American creditors) and to meddle otherwise in vested contract rights. A contentious topic at the Convention, Madison justifies the “contracts clause” as needed to combat economic distortions and social disturbance caused by persons seeking government support for their economic schemes: “[The people] very rightly infer, therefore, that some thorough reform is wanting, which will banish speculations on public measures, inspire a general prudence and industry, and give a regular course to the business of society.”

However, if such interferences with vested contracts were to originate in federal law, they would still be invalid. Like bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, they are so fundamentally destructive of security in one’s person and property, Madison writes, that they violate the “first principles of the [Lockean] social compact.” This raises an interesting point, one eventually taken up by the judiciary. If a constitution does not expressly address the legislature’s power to abridge a particular personal right, does that silence permit the legislature to limit that right? Or are there extra-constitutional limits on the discretion of the political majority, beyond those expressly enumerated in that constitution?

If appeal may be made to such extra-constitutional principles in political debate to prevent adoption of a law (which surely may be done), will such an appeal also lie in a judicial proceeding to declare the law unconstitutional once it is adopted (a much more dubious proposition)? If the answer to the last point is affirmative, exactly what principles may be considered, and how would the judge know? “First principles of the social contract” flows easily from the pen of the writer and the lips of the orator, but it is freighted with assumptions and epistemological uncertainties. Judges are chosen for their knowledge of the law, not their “wisdom” as political or moral philosophers, notwithstanding any contrary assertion by the occasional Supreme Court nominee.

Are same-sex marriage, polygamy, suicide, or abortion part of such “first principles”? We can be fairly certain of what Publius would have said. What about the right to pursue a calling or to run a business without a myriad of labor, environmental, and other regulations that dull initiative? The response of the Framers in 1780s republican mode (not in the then just-emerging “classic liberal” mode) might be surprisingly equivocating.

The second class of grants to Congress discussed in Federalist 44 includes the necessary and proper clause and the supremacy clause, topics already addressed by Hamilton in Federalist 33. The examination of the necessary and proper clause is a preview of the famous McCulloch v. Maryland case in 1819, considered by many the Supreme Court opinion with the greatest impact on American politics. The initial issue in McCulloch was Congress’s power to charter the Second Bank of the United States, a controversy that had begun even during the Articles with the debate over Robert Morris’s Bank of North America and persisted through the wrangling in George Washington’s cabinet in 1791 over Hamilton’s proposal for the First Bank of the United States.

Congress has no express power to charter corporations or banks. Echoing Publius, Chief Justice Marshall noted in McCulloch that every power to accomplish an end carries with it, by necessary implication, the power to adopt the means to achieve it. This is a fundamental principle of agency law, and Congress has been delegated certain tasks by the people. It is also an inherent aspect of government. But there is a flaw. The Constitution is not silent about those means.

Luther Martin, Maryland’s wily attorney general in McCulloch, argued instead that the necessary and proper clause provides an express definition of the means to be employed, thereby negating any theory of implied powers. He then claimed that “necessary and proper” requires a showing of indispensability. Marshall disagreed, ruling that “necessary” meant “convenient” or “appropriate.” His interpretation vastly expanded the constitutional discretion for Congressional action. In light of that ruling it is noteworthy that Madison describes the power conferred under that clause as “indispensably necessary” and equates this to those means that are “requisite,” which the dictionary defines as “essential.” One is left to speculate whether the role of the national government might be different today, had Martin’s—and, apparently, Madison’s—more restrictive definition prevailed.

Monday, June 28th, 2010

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is


1 reply
  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    What is phenomenal is that the debates in the Constitutional Convention explicitly denied Congress the power to cut canals as it was thought to be a good idea to promote the general welfare of the US. But it was denied on account that it might lead to government run central banks and mechantile exchanges, which could be projected to be either state run or federal run banks. Exactly how they leap from cutting canals to forming a central bank is something I do not know but they saw it as an eventuality as if it were necessary and proper?

    So what we have is a central bank explicitly denied on the auspices of cutting canals; but the court managed to wrangle a reasoning of necessary and proper on the power of taxation and regulation of interstate commerce…anyway. I wonder if Cheif Justice Marshall paid attention to that canal cutting detail?


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