The Same Subject Continued, and the Incoherence of the Objections to the New Plan Exposed
From the New York Packet.
Tuesday, January 15, 1788.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

IT IS not a little remarkable that in every case reported by ancient history, in which government has been established with deliberation and consent, the task of framing it has not been committed to an assembly of men, but has been performed by some individual citizen of preeminent wisdom and approved integrity.

Minos, we learn, was the primitive founder of the government of Crete, as Zaleucus was of that of the Locrians. Theseus first, and after him Draco and Solon, instituted the government of Athens. Lycurgus was the lawgiver of Sparta. The foundation of the original government of Rome was laid by Romulus, and the work completed by two of his elective successors, Numa and Tullius Hostilius. On the abolition of royalty the consular administration was substituted by Brutus, who stepped forward with a project for such a reform, which, he alleged, had been prepared by Tullius Hostilius, and to which his address obtained the assent and ratification of the senate and people. This remark is applicable to confederate governments also. Amphictyon, we are told, was the author of that which bore his name. The Achaean league received its first birth from Achaeus, and its second from Aratus.

What degree of agency these reputed lawgivers might have in their respective establishments, or how far they might be clothed with the legitimate authority of the people, cannot in every instance be ascertained. In some, however, the proceeding was strictly regular. Draco appears to have been intrusted by the people of Athens with indefinite powers to reform its government and laws. And Solon, according to Plutarch, was in a manner compelled, by the universal suffrage of his fellow-citizens, to take upon him the sole and absolute power of new-modeling the constitution. The proceedings under Lycurgus were less regular; but as far as the advocates for a regular reform could prevail, they all turned their eyes towards the single efforts of that celebrated patriot and sage, instead of seeking to bring about a revolution by the intervention of a deliberative body of citizens.

Whence could it have proceeded, that a people, jealous as the Greeks were of their liberty, should so far abandon the rules of caution as to place their destiny in the hands of a single citizen? Whence could it have proceeded, that the Athenians, a people who would not suffer an army to be commanded by fewer than ten generals, and who required no other proof of danger to their liberties than the illustrious merit of a fellow-citizen, should consider one illustrious citizen as a more eligible depositary of the fortunes of themselves and their posterity, than a select body of citizens, from whose common deliberations more wisdom, as well as more safety, might have been expected? These questions cannot be fully answered, without supposing that the fears of discord and disunion among a number of counsellors exceeded the apprehension of treachery or incapacity in a single individual. History informs us, likewise, of the difficulties with which these celebrated reformers had to contend, as well as the expedients which they were obliged to employ in order to carry their reforms into effect. Solon, who seems to have indulged a more temporizing policy, confessed that he had not given to his countrymen the government best suited to their happiness, but most tolerable to their prejudices. And Lycurgus, more true to his object, was under the necessity of mixing a portion of violence with the authority of superstition, and of securing his final success by a voluntary renunciation, first of his country, and then of his life. If these lessons teach us, on one hand, to admire the improvement made by America on the ancient mode of preparing and establishing regular plans of government, they serve not less, on the other, to admonish us of the hazards and difficulties incident to such experiments, and of the great imprudence of unnecessarily multiplying them.

Is it an unreasonable conjecture, that the errors which may be contained in the plan of the convention are such as have resulted rather from the defect of antecedent experience on this complicated and difficult subject, than from a want of accuracy or care in the investigation of it; and, consequently such as will not be ascertained until an actual trial shall have pointed them out? This conjecture is rendered probable, not only by many considerations of a general nature, but by the particular case of the Articles of Confederation. It is observable that among the numerous objections and amendments suggested by the several States, when these articles were submitted for their ratification, not one is found which alludes to the great and radical error which on actual trial has discovered itself. And if we except the observations which New Jersey was led to make, rather by her local situation, than by her peculiar foresight, it may be questioned whether a single suggestion was of sufficient moment to justify a revision of the system. There is abundant reason, nevertheless, to suppose that immaterial as these objections were, they would have been adhered to with a very dangerous inflexibility, in some States, had not a zeal for their opinions and supposed interests been stifled by the more powerful sentiment of selfpreservation. One State, we may remember, persisted for several years in refusing her concurrence, although the enemy remained the whole period at our gates, or rather in the very bowels of our country. Nor was her pliancy in the end effected by a less motive, than the fear of being chargeable with protracting the public calamities, and endangering the event of the contest. Every candid reader will make the proper reflections on these important facts.

A patient who finds his disorder daily growing worse, and that an efficacious remedy can no longer be delayed without extreme danger, after coolly revolving his situation, and the characters of different physicians, selects and calls in such of them as he judges most capable of administering relief, and best entitled to his confidence. The physicians attend; the case of the patient is carefully examined; a consultation is held; they are unanimously agreed that the symptoms are critical, but that the case, with proper and timely relief, is so far from being desperate, that it may be made to issue in an improvement of his constitution. They are equally unanimous in prescribing the remedy, by which this happy effect is to be produced. The prescription is no sooner made known, however, than a number of persons interpose, and, without denying the reality or danger of the disorder, assure the patient that the prescription will be poison to his constitution, and forbid him, under pain of certain death, to make use of it. Might not the patient reasonably demand, before he ventured to follow this advice, that the authors of it should at least agree among themselves on some other remedy to be substituted? And if he found them differing as much from one another as from his first counsellors, would he not act prudently in trying the experiment unanimously recommended by the latter, rather than be hearkening to those who could neither deny the necessity of a speedy remedy, nor agree in proposing one?

Such a patient and in such a situation is America at this moment. She has been sensible of her malady. She has obtained a regular and unanimous advice from men of her own deliberate choice. And she is warned by others against following this advice under pain of the most fatal consequences. Do the monitors deny the reality of her danger? No. Do they deny the necessity of some speedy and powerful remedy? No. Are they agreed, are any two of them agreed, in their objections to the remedy proposed, or in the proper one to be substituted? Let them speak for themselves. This one tells us that the proposed Constitution ought to be rejected, because it is not a confederation of the States, but a government over individuals. Another admits that it ought to be a government over individuals to a certain extent, but by no means to the extent proposed. A third does not object to the government over individuals, or to the extent proposed, but to the want of a bill of rights. A fourth concurs in the absolute necessity of a bill of rights, but contends that it ought to be declaratory, not of the personal rights of individuals, but of the rights reserved to the States in their political capacity. A fifth is of opinion that a bill of rights of any sort would be superfluous and misplaced, and that the plan would be unexceptionable but for the fatal power of regulating the times and places of election. An objector in a large State exclaims loudly against the unreasonable equality of representation in the Senate. An objector in a small State is equally loud against the dangerous inequality in the House of Representatives. From this quarter, we are alarmed with the amazing expense, from the number of persons who are to administer the new government. From another quarter, and sometimes from the same quarter, on another occasion, the cry is that the Congress will be but a shadow of a representation, and that the government would be far less objectionable if the number and the expense were doubled. A patriot in a State that does not import or export, discerns insuperable objections against the power of direct taxation. The patriotic adversary in a State of great exports and imports, is not less dissatisfied that the whole burden of taxes may be thrown on consumption. This politician discovers in the Constitution a direct and irresistible tendency to monarchy; that is equally sure it will end in aristocracy. Another is puzzled to say which of these shapes it will ultimately assume, but sees clearly it must be one or other of them; whilst a fourth is not wanting, who with no less confidence affirms that the Constitution is so far from having a bias towards either of these dangers, that the weight on that side will not be sufficient to keep it upright and firm against its opposite propensities. With another class of adversaries to the Constitution the language is that the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments are intermixed in such a manner as to contradict all the ideas of regular government and all the requisite precautions in favor of liberty. Whilst this objection circulates in vague and general expressions, there are but a few who lend their sanction to it. Let each one come forward with his particular explanation, and scarce any two are exactly agreed upon the subject. In the eyes of one the junction of the Senate with the President in the responsible function of appointing to offices, instead of vesting this executive power in the Executive alone, is the vicious part of the organization. To another, the exclusion of the House of Representatives, whose numbers alone could be a due security against corruption and partiality in the exercise of such a power, is equally obnoxious. With another, the admission of the President into any share of a power which ever must be a dangerous engine in the hands of the executive magistrate, is an unpardonable violation of the maxims of republican jealousy. No part of the arrangement, according to some, is more inadmissible than the trial of impeachments by the Senate, which is alternately a member both of the legislative and executive departments, when this power so evidently belonged to the judiciary department. “We concur fully,” reply others, “in the objection to this part of the plan, but we can never agree that a reference of impeachments to the judiciary authority would be an amendment of the error. Our principal dislike to the organization arises from the extensive powers already lodged in that department.” Even among the zealous patrons of a council of state the most irreconcilable variance is discovered concerning the mode in which it ought to be constituted. The demand of one gentleman is, that the council should consist of a small number to be appointed by the most numerous branch of the legislature. Another would prefer a larger number, and considers it as a fundamental condition that the appointment should be made by the President himself.

As it can give no umbrage to the writers against the plan of the federal Constitution, let us suppose, that as they are the most zealous, so they are also the most sagacious, of those who think the late convention were unequal to the task assigned them, and that a wiser and better plan might and ought to be substituted. Let us further suppose that their country should concur, both in this favorable opinion of their merits, and in their unfavorable opinion of the convention; and should accordingly proceed to form them into a second convention, with full powers, and for the express purpose of revising and remoulding the work of the first. Were the experiment to be seriously made, though it required some effort to view it seriously even in fiction, I leave it to be decided by the sample of opinions just exhibited, whether, with all their enmity to their predecessors, they would, in any one point, depart so widely from their example, as in the discord and ferment that would mark their own deliberations; and whether the Constitution, now before the public, would not stand as fair a chance for immortality, as Lycurgus gave to that of Sparta, by making its change to depend on his own return from exile and death, if it were to be immediately adopted, and were to continue in force, not until a BETTER, but until ANOTHER should be agreed upon by this new assembly of lawgivers.

It is a matter both of wonder and regret, that those who raise so many objections against the new Constitution should never call to mind the defects of that which is to be exchanged for it. It is not necessary that the former should be perfect; it is sufficient that the latter is more imperfect. No man would refuse to give brass for silver or gold, because the latter had some alloy in it. No man would refuse to quit a shattered and tottering habitation for a firm and commodious building, because the latter had not a porch to it, or because some of the rooms might be a little larger or smaller, or the ceilings a little higher or lower than his fancy would have planned them. But waiving illustrations of this sort, is it not manifest that most of the capital objections urged against the new system lie with tenfold weight against the existing Confederation? Is an indefinite power to raise money dangerous in the hands of the federal government? The present Congress can make requisitions to any amount they please, and the States are constitutionally bound to furnish them; they can emit bills of credit as long as they will pay for the paper; they can borrow, both abroad and at home, as long as a shilling will be lent. Is an indefinite power to raise troops dangerous? The Confederation gives to Congress that power also; and they have already begun to make use of it. Is it improper and unsafe to intermix the different powers of government in the same body of men? Congress, a single body of men, are the sole depositary of all the federal powers. Is it particularly dangerous to give the keys of the treasury, and the command of the army, into the same hands? The Confederation places them both in the hands of Congress. Is a bill of rights essential to liberty? The Confederation has no bill of rights. Is it an objection against the new Constitution, that it empowers the Senate, with the concurrence of the Executive, to make treaties which are to be the laws of the land? The existing Congress, without any such control, can make treaties which they themselves have declared, and most of the States have recognized, to be the supreme law of the land. Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old it is permitted forever.

I shall be told, that however dangerous this mixture of powers may be in theory, it is rendered harmless by the dependence of Congress on the State for the means of carrying them into practice; that however large the mass of powers may be, it is in fact a lifeless mass. Then, say I, in the first place, that the Confederation is chargeable with the still greater folly of declaring certain powers in the federal government to be absolutely necessary, and at the same time rendering them absolutely nugatory; and, in the next place, that if the Union is to continue, and no better government be substituted, effective powers must either be granted to, or assumed by, the existing Congress; in either of which events, the contrast just stated will hold good. But this is not all. Out of this lifeless mass has already grown an excrescent power, which tends to realize all the dangers that can be apprehended from a defective construction of the supreme government of the Union. It is now no longer a point of speculation and hope, that the Western territory is a mine of vast wealth to the United States; and although it is not of such a nature as to extricate them from their present distresses, or for some time to come, to yield any regular supplies for the public expenses, yet must it hereafter be able, under proper management, both to effect a gradual discharge of the domestic debt, and to furnish, for a certain period, liberal tributes to the federal treasury. A very large proportion of this fund has been already surrendered by individual States; and it may with reason be expected that the remaining States will not persist in withholding similar proofs of their equity and generosity. We may calculate, therefore, that a rich and fertile country, of an area equal to the inhabited extent of the United States, will soon become a national stock. Congress have assumed the administration of this stock. They have begun to render it productive. Congress have undertaken to do more: they have proceeded to form new States, to erect temporary governments, to appoint officers for them, and to prescribe the conditions on which such States shall be admitted into the Confederacy. All this has been done; and done without the least color of constitutional authority. Yet no blame has been whispered; no alarm has been sounded. A GREAT and INDEPENDENT fund of revenue is passing into the hands of a SINGLE BODY of men, who can RAISE TROOPS to an INDEFINITE NUMBER, and appropriate money to their support for an INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME. And yet there are men, who have not only been silent spectators of this prospect, but who are advocates for the system which exhibits it; and, at the same time, urge against the new system the objections which we have heard. Would they not act with more consistency, in urging the establishment of the latter, as no less necessary to guard the Union against the future powers and resources of a body constructed like the existing Congress, than to save it from the dangers threatened by the present impotency of that Assembly?

I mean not, by any thing here said, to throw censure on the measures which have been pursued by Congress. I am sensible they could not have done otherwise. The public interest, the necessity of the case, imposed upon them the task of overleaping their constitutional limits. But is not the fact an alarming proof of the danger resulting from a government which does not possess regular powers commensurate to its objects? A dissolution or usurpation is the dreadful dilemma to which it is continually exposed.


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

Federalist Nos. 37 and 38 depart from Publius’s usual fare of panoramic examination of the weaknesses of historic confederations or dissection of particular objections to the Constitution. Instead, Madison takes up the cause of the project as a whole and of those who remained in Philadelphia to see it through. The thematic thread running through Federalist 37 is “fallibility,” with repeated reminders of human limitations that call for humility and compromise.

His style varies, moving from the evocative tone of the raconteur to the righteous indignation of the remonstrator to the mild defensiveness of the weary apologist. His annoyance with the quantity and variety of criticisms is palpable. He impugns the motives of opponents whom he accuses of a “predetermination to condemn.” Unlike the uncritical enthusiasts who support the project and whose motives may be good or ill, these opponents have no good or even excusably misbegotten motives. To Madison, they act from personal gain or the unwavering arrogance of their  righteous certitude.

Madison fears that the project might, like Gulliver, become tied down by the carping of Lilliputian critics. He knows that delay works against success of any significant and controversial political innovation. He declares, therefore, that he will appeal not to minds already made up, but to the honestly persuadable reader. He pleads with readers to consider the difficulties inherent in an undertaking as momentous as the crafting of a constitution, difficulties that necessarily result in imperfect compromises that expose points for easy attack. It has been said, “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” The Constitution is a camel, a durable and adaptable animal to be sure, but not a sleek and pampered horse planned by “an ingenious theorist…in his closet, or in his imagination.”

Benjamin Franklin, in a speech near the close of the Philadelphia Convention, revealed his doubts about parts of the Constitution. Ever the committed skeptic, he then declared his support “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” Franklin expressed hope “that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility” and sign the Constitution. As Madison writes in the next essay, no government is perfect, so that form which is least imperfect is best.

Madison describes the difficulties faced by the Convention in balancing energy in government, stability of laws, and republican liberty, that is, those fundamental characteristics of good government that can be at odds with each. All constitutions share minimum common ground in that they reflect by whom and how governing authority will be exercised. He lays out the delicate balance the Convention had to strike in ordering that authority:

The genius of republican liberty, seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people; but, that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that, even during this short period, the trust should be placed not in a few, but in a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires, that the hands, in which power is lodged, should continue for a length of time the same. A frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of electors; and a frequent change of measures, from a frequent change of men: whilst energy in government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.

Republicanism. Liberty. Stability. Energy. Ideas that animated the Framers, as reflected in numerous essays by Publius, those were also the objects of the Convention’s plan. That plan had to be practical, driven by experience, not by unbending fidelity to some abstract theory. The vastness of the project and the limitations of human ability complicated the task. It was not merely determining the republican operation of government through elections and representation. It was also the daunting work of designing a new federal structure by balancing the state and national political domains, and of properly calibrating the separation and interaction of the three branches of the national government, all while damping the jealousies among states and regions.

This endeavor is made difficult by the “indistinctness of the object [the absence of fixed rules of nature to show how these institutions should be designed to accomplish the objects of the plan]; imperfection of the organ of perception [the fallibility of the human mind that prevents us from recognizing the perfect path], inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas [the limitations of language in the expression of ideas].” Madison regrets that “no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many, equivocally denoting different ideas.” Interpretation of written text must start with the words. But every writing suffers from the inherent vagueness and imprecision of language. For contracts, laws, and constitutions, which affect groups of persons, the reader’s mere subjective impression will not do, and recourse must be had to various extraneous sources of meaning. Those imperfections may mar the Constitution; but they will also mar any alternative.

Madison is moved to wonder “that so many difficulties should have been surmounted….It is impossible for any man of candour to reflect on this circumstance, without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible, for the man of pious reflection, not to perceive in it the finger of that Almighty Hand, which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” Due recognition of the fallibility of all involved requires of them humility about their own wisdom and at least a spirit of sensible compromise (though not, by that, a lack of firm principles). Those are the marks of statesmen in contrast to mere politicians, and Madison calls on both sides to be statesmen.

Good advice through the ages.

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

Thursday, June 17th, 2010


Guest Essayist: Janine Turner

Howdy from Hollywood! Cathy and her daughter, Mollie, Juliette and I are in Hollywood, “Constituting America!” We met with a producer today regarding many things, including ideas for television specials and our game show! Tomorrow we are meeting with many, many people in the Hollywood industry to spread the word about our “90 in 90” blog and our “We the People 9.17 Contest!!”

Juliette and I have had a whirlwind trip starting in Texas. We traveled to New York City, Boston,  Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and now to Hollywood – all in the span of less thank two weeks!! We are “Constituting America” from the Atlantic to the Pacific!

I thoroughly enjoyed our Federalist Paper No. 38 today by the splendid James Madison. As he mentioned last night, it truly was the miraculous power of the “Almighty” that brought the new Constitution to fruition. I do believe we all agree, that with the rancor and division in our current Congress, we will never be able to achieve such levels of genius as that exhibited by the distinguished members of the Constitutional Convention.

Yet, I believe we are at as equally a dangerous crossroad now as we were in 1787. Sickness strikes our generation and it is permeating to our posterity. Will we heed the call of the doctor? Vision appears to be the most potent medicine necessitated by our current crisis. Sacrifice appears to be the most needed human virtue and bravery the highest knock at the door. Who will answer?

I believe it will be the genius of the people.

Common sense seems is my summary of today’s Federalist Paper. The array of history recounted by James Madison, which describes how other countries gave the construction of their Constitutions to the power of one man, is stunning. “Fears of discord and disunion” blinded their best interests. Once again this reflects the amazing feat of unity in our historic Constitutional Convention.

James Madison’s following argument is also striking:

“..They have proceeded to form new states, to erect temporary governments; to appoint officers for them;
and to prescribe the conditions on which such states shall be admitted into the confederacy. All this has been done; and done without the least color of constitutional authority. Yet no blame has been whispered.; no alarm has been sounded. A GREAT and INDEPENDENT fund of revenue is passing into the hands of a SINGLE BODY of men, who can RAISE TROOPS to an INDEFINITE NUMBER, and appropriate money to their support for and INDEFINITE PERIOD OF TIME.”

Once again, it is common sense. Common sense reveals the tremendous burden of debt that is threatening our liberty – on all levels – social, spiritual, financial, physical. Is this going to be dealt with by our Congress? Do their hearts beat with that of pride or with that of the patriot? Will we be saved from “the dangers threatened by the present impotency of that assembly?”

We the people must prevail. We must sound the alarm with our voices and our votes. Many good men and women serve in our current Congress. May God bless them yet, “…a consultation is held: they are unanimously agreed that the symptoms are critical.”

James Madison speaks a truth that all Constitutionalists believe. It is spoken here in this Federalist Paper. He warns about the “discord and ferment that would mark their own deliberations” and that the Constitution would not stand a fair chance for “immortality.”

“Immortality.” The Constitution was written for immortality! Our current dire straights, discord and ferment threaten our Constitution’s immortality. Ironically, it is only with our Constitution’s breath that our country will be saved. It is common sense.

God Bless,

Janine Turner
Friday, June 18th, 2010

Guest Essayist: Cathy Gillespie

First, a reminder to watch Fox News Sunday, for Janine as Power Player of the Week! Chris Wallace does a great sit down interview with Janine about Constituting America! Check your local listings for airtimes!

Thank you, Professor Knipprath for your essays yesterday and today.  You have a great way of not only explaining, but augmenting and filling in the gaps!

I would like to echo Seth’s comments today, lauding the open and vigorous debate the founders engaged in during the ratification process.  In this essay, Madison takes on the anti-federalists in the most direct attack yet,  by listing their objections, including a lack of bill of rights, disagreement on how the bill of rights should be framed, unequal representation for big states in the Senate and small states in the U.S. House, concern about the power of direct taxation, wariness of possible taxes on consumption, worry of a tendency towards monarchy, etc. The list goes on and on.

Madison eloquently points out that the document is not perfect, but better than the alternative:

“It is a matter both of wonder and regret, that those who raise so many objections against the new Constitution should never call to mind the defects of that which is to be exchanged for it. It is not necessary that the former should be perfect; it is sufficient that the latter is more imperfect.”

Indeed, one of the most beautiful traits of our Constitution is that the founders knew it was not perfect.  They had a mechanism to address that: the amendment process.

The amendments trace our country’s history, and are a vivid reminder for all to see of our country’s attempt to refine this majestic document.  Some of the amendments have been wiser than others.  Some corrected grave injustices, and some made changes that in hindsight may have been better left unmade.  But they all reflect the founders’ intent as to how the Constitution should be modified, if change is to be made.  Even the amendment process contains checks and balances!

Federalist No. 38 is an example of our country’s grand tradition of political debate at its finest.  Through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, both sides were thoroughly aired in a way that is a lost art in our modern culture.

Thank you to all who participate in the civil, intelligent and insightful political discourse on this site, in the true tradition of the founding fathers!

Have a wonderful weekend,

Cathy Gillespie
Friday, June 18th, 2010

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

In a lengthy essay, Madison embarks on a series of defenses of Congressional powers that he pursues in more detail through Federalist 46. In Federalist 41, he proposes to divide that task over the course of the following several essays by examining whether any particular power is unnecessary and improper and also whether the entire mass of powers is dangerous to the continued vitality of the states.

He opens with a reminder that, in the end, the Constitution is a practical undertaking, not a theoretical blueprint for an ideal state. He derides the opponents as having “chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power of trust, of which a beneficial use can be made.” He proceeds with a powerful and very relevant indictment. “[This tactic] may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness, involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused.”

This passage richly describes a basic phenomenon in politics. Human institutions are designed by imperfect beings to control imperfect beings and administered by imperfect beings. “A government of laws, not of men,” matters, but only to a point. In the end, government is still administered by humans. Perfect systems are imaginary. “Utopia,” which we treat as if derived from the Greek “Eutopia” (a good place), actually is Greek for “not a place.” Utopias do not exist. Rhetorical appeals over potential, yet unrealized, abuses of power are a staple of political discourse. When considering the merits of politicians and political choices, there are always ideological purists who accentuate slight differences rather than bountiful similarities. For them, a political figure who does not perfectly reflect their own vision of the perfect system is suspect, and a political choice that deviates even in minor particulars from their utopian views must be condemned. The perfect, as the saying goes, becomes the enemy of the good.  As he did in earlier efforts, such as in Federalist 37 and 38, Madison urges more temperate and balanced reflection.

After some general observations, he returns to a favorite topic of contention, the keeping of a peacetime army. He proclaims that the matter “has been too far anticipated, in another place, to admit an extensive discussion of them in this place.” Yet, he proceeds to declaim about the topic for half the paper, evidence once again of the frequency and relentlessness of the opponents’ attacks. Those attacks resonated with the public and with many delegates because of the troubling history of standing armies and the tension they reflect with republican ideas.

Two passages stand out. The first is, “Security against foreign danger, is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American union.” There are those who will happily give to the government powers to intrude into the most everyday matters, but act aghast when miliary funding is sought or when a state (reacting to the failure of the federal government to carry out its responsibility in such matters) seeks to protect its people from threats to security coming across the border. This kind of attitude inverts the purpose of government, to provide for personal security for people and allow them to pursue happiness as befits them, not to reduce people to a state of dependency on the government for personal needs.

The second passage is, “It is in vain to oppose constitutional barriers to the impulse of self-preservation. It is worse than in vain: because it plants in the constitution itself necessary usurpations of power, every precedent of which is a germ of unnecessary and multiplied repetitions.” As Publius has written before, necessity knows no bounds in the law. The first rule of nature, for individuals and societies, is self-preservation. There always exists, as countless writers on political theory have declared, a natural right of self-defense. For the proper exercise of that right, there must be a right to arm oneself with reasonable means, a right that applies to individuals as much as nations. Any attempt to restrict that right will fail, as the impulse to self-preservation will prevail at least in those individuals or societies who have not become personally or civilizationally enervated. Indeed, restricting that right will undermine the legitimacy of the constitution itself, as respect for the whole is undermined by repeated violations of an unsustainable provision.

The last portion of the essay discusses a power that has become a conspicuous symbol of the expansion of government, the power to spend. Madison objects that opponents of the Constitution have mislead the people in arguing that the power to “lay taxes…to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States,” gives the Congress the power to legislate for the general welfare. First, he declares correctly that this is a nonsensical reading. “A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents…must be very singularly expressed by the terms ‘to raise money for the general welfare.’” The general welfare language, then, is not a broad grant of power that would make the following enumeration of powers superfluous and contradictory, but a limitation on the power to spend the revenue raised under the taxing power.

As an interesting historical side note, during the Convention, the clause, derived from language in the Articles, was intended to prevent spending of money for “internal improvements” that promoted the welfare of particular states or localities, rather than the general welfare of the United States. But Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris, a strong nationalist who was also the principal draftsman on the Committee of Style that was responsible for the final wording of the text, surreptitiously inserted a semicolon between the power “to lay and collect…excises,” and the limitation of “to pay the debts….” That made the latter seem like an independent power, just as the other powers were separated by semi-colons. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman discovered Morris’s sleight of hand, and the Convention voted to replace the semicolon with a comma.

Second, Madison defines the general welfare as defined by the following specific clauses. He maintained that position in later debates. Hamilton, in contrast, during the debates in the Washington cabinet over the Bank of the United States, claimed that the other enumerated powers of Congress already include within them an implied power to spend for those objectives. Thus, a power to establish post offices includes the power to pay for them. According to Hamilton, the power to spend for the general welfare goes beyond the objectives listed in the Constitution. That is the long-established view of the Supreme Court, as well.

However, that raises the question of what limits exist on the power of Congress to spend. After all, if Congress can spend for objects not within its enumerated powers, it might be able to do indirectly what it cannot do directly. Spend money to control education, for example. Hamilton insisted that the limit was that the spending had to be for the “general” welfare. Yet, unlike the Convention, he also supported spending on subsidies for manufactures and, after some initial misgivings, on internal improvements. He had a much laxer view of “general” welfare.

Today, that leaves Congress in charge of defining “general” welfare. Since many expenditures are earmarked for projects that benefit particular individuals, companies, or communities, the Congress is adept at cloaking rather everything as somehow affecting the general welfare. The spending power has gone far beyond the understanding of the Framers. Bloated spending may prove to be much more of a threat to the national well-being of the country than the standing armies that prompted such concern.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 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