Guest Essayist: David Eastman

Previous essays in this series explored why the Constitution is ineffective at restraining federal officials today, and illustrated how members of the present generation must come to view their relationship to the Constitution if it is to be of service in effectively limiting federal overreach. This series now concludes by highlighting two largely untried and fundamentally different approaches to restoring constitutional constraints today; issue-based legislative accountability, and the calling of a convention of states to amend the United States Constitution.

A Convention for Our Time

When we survey the Constitution today, it is increasingly difficult to picture it as the splendid banner raised by Washington and his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Nor does it today call to mind the iron chains described by Thomas Jefferson when he spoke of binding men down from mischief “by the chains of the Constitution.” Instead, the Constitution hangs frayed and tattered today, a silent witness to more than two centuries of flying above our nation’s capital. Its form has changed very little since 1787, but much of the life has gone out of it. Some today have begun to ask if it isn’t time for another convention—and in no state is this idea greeted with greater enthusiasm than here in Alaska. Holding a convention would open the door to a whole series of amendments, which could add new thread to a tattered banner, and in so doing breathe new life into the Constitution. Even so, when the idea of a second convention first began to gain traction in 1788, James Madison argued that the timing of any future conventions should be chosen only with great care. Whether the timing is right for another convention is an important question, and one to which any serious student of the Constitution should give careful consideration.

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Restrictions on the Authority of the Several States
From the New York Packet.
Friday, January 25, 1788.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

A FIFTH class of provisions in favor of the federal authority consists of the following restrictions on the authority of the several States:1. “No State shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make any thing but gold and silver a legal tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex-post-facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts; or grant any title of nobility. “The prohibition against treaties, alliances, and confederations makes a part of the existing articles of Union; and for reasons which need no explanation, is copied into the new Constitution. The prohibition of letters of marque is another part of the old system, but is somewhat extended in the new. According to the former, letters of marque could be granted by the States after a declaration of war; according to the latter, these licenses must be obtained, as well during war as previous to its declaration, from the government of the United States. This alteration is fully justified by the advantage of uniformity in all points which relate to foreign powers; and of immediate responsibility to the nation in all those for whose conduct the nation itself is to be responsible.

The right of coining money, which is here taken from the States, was left in their hands by the Confederation, as a concurrent right with that of Congress, under an exception in favor of the exclusive right of Congress to regulate the alloy and value. In this instance, also, the new provision is an improvement on the old. Whilst the alloy and value depended on the general authority, a right of coinage in the particular States could have no other effect than to multiply expensive mints and diversify the forms and weights of the circulating pieces. The latter inconveniency defeats one purpose for which the power was originally submitted to the federal head; and as far as the former might prevent an inconvenient remittance of gold and silver to the central mint for recoinage, the end can be as well attained by local mints established under the general authority.

The extension of the prohibition to bills of credit must give pleasure to every citizen, in proportion to his love of justice and his knowledge of the true springs of public prosperity. 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 chargeable with this unadvised measure, which must long remain unsatisfied; or rather an accumulation of guilt, which can be expiated no otherwise than by a voluntary sacrifice on the altar of justice, of the power which has been the instrument of it. In addition to these persuasive considerations, it may be observed, that the same reasons which show the necessity of denying to the States the power of regulating coin, prove with equal force that they ought not to be at liberty to substitute a paper medium in the place of coin. Had every State a right to regulate the value of its coin, there might be as many different currencies as States, and thus the intercourse among them would be impeded; retrospective alterations in its value might be made, and thus the citizens of other States be injured, and animosities be kindled among the States themselves. The subjects of foreign powers might suffer from the same cause, and hence the Union be discredited and embroiled by the indiscretion of a single member. No one of these mischiefs is less incident to a power in the States to emit paper money, than to coin gold or silver. The power to make any thing but gold and silver a tender in payment of debts, is withdrawn from the States, on the same principle with that of issuing a paper currency. Bills of attainder, ex-post-facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation. The two former are expressly prohibited by the declarations prefixed to some of the State constitutions, and all of them are prohibited by the spirit and scope of these fundamental charters. Our own experience has taught us, nevertheless, that additional fences against these dangers ought not to be omitted. Very properly, therefore, have the convention added this constitutional bulwark in favor of personal security and private rights; and I am much deceived if they have not, in so doing, as faithfully consulted the genuine sentiments as the undoubted interests of their constituents. The sober people of America are weary of the fluctuating policy which has directed the public councils. They have seen with regret and indignation that sudden changes and legislative interferences, in cases affecting personal rights, become jobs in the hands of enterprising and influential speculators, and snares to the more-industrious and lessinformed part of the community. They have seen, too, that one legislative interference is but the first link of a long chain of repetitions, every subsequent interference being naturally produced by the effects of the preceding. They 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. The prohibition with respect to titles of nobility is copied from the articles of Confederation and needs no comment. 2. “No State shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection laws, and the net produce of all duties and imposts laid by any State on imports or exports, shall be for the use of the treasury of the United States; and all such laws shall be subject to the revision and control of the Congress. No State shall, without the consent of Congress, lay any duty on tonnage, keep troops or ships of war in time of peace, enter into any agreement or compact with another State, or with a foreign power, or engage in war unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay. “The restraint on the power of the States over imports and exports is enforced by all the arguments which prove the necessity of submitting the regulation of trade to the federal councils. It is needless, therefore, to remark further on this head, than that the manner in which the restraint is qualified seems well calculated at once to secure to the States a reasonable discretion in providing for the conveniency of their imports and exports, and to the United States a reasonable check against the abuse of this discretion.

The remaining particulars of this clause fall within reasonings which are either so obvious, or have been so fully developed, that they may be passed over without remark. The SIXTH and last class consists of the several powers and provisions by which efficacy is given to all the rest. 1. Of these the first is, the “power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. “Few parts of the Constitution have been assailed with more intemperance than this; yet on a fair investigation of it, no part can appear more completely invulnerable. Without the SUBSTANCE of this power, the whole Constitution would be a dead letter. Those who object to the article, therefore, as a part of the Constitution, can only mean that the FORM of the provision is improper. But have they considered whether a better form could have been substituted? There are four other possible methods which the Constitution might have taken on this subject. They might have copied the second article of the existing Confederation, which would have prohibited the exercise of any power not EXPRESSLY delegated; they might have attempted a positive enumeration of the powers comprehended under the general terms “necessary and proper”; they might have attempted a negative enumeration of them, by specifying the powers excepted from the general definition; they might have been altogether silent on the subject, leaving these necessary and proper powers to construction and inference. Had the convention taken the first method of adopting the second article of Confederation, it is evident that the new Congress would be continually exposed, as their predecessors have been, to the alternative of construing the term “EXPRESSLY” with so much rigor, as to disarm the government of all real authority whatever, or with so much latitude as to destroy altogether the force of the restriction.

It would be easy to show, if it were necessary, that no important power, delegated by the articles of Confederation, has been or can be executed by Congress, without recurring more or less to the doctrine of CONSTRUCTION or IMPLICATION. As the powers delegated under the new system are more extensive, the government which is to administer it would find itself still more distressed with the alternative of betraying the public interests by doing nothing, or of violating the Constitution by exercising powers indispensably necessary and proper, but, at the same time, not EXPRESSLY granted. Had the convention attempted a positive enumeration of the powers necessary and proper for carrying their other powers into effect, the attempt would have involved a complete digest of laws on every subject to which the Constitution relates; accommodated too, not only to the existing state of things, but to all the possible changes which futurity may produce; for in every new application of a general power, the PARTICULAR POWERS, which are the means of attaining the OBJECT of the general power, must always necessarily vary with that object, and be often properly varied whilst the object remains the same.

Had they attempted to enumerate the particular powers or means not necessary or proper for carrying the general powers into execution, the task would have been no less chimerical; and would have been liable to this further objection, that every defect in the enumeration would have been equivalent to a positive grant of authority. If, to avoid this consequence, they had attempted a partial enumeration of the exceptions, and described the residue by the general terms, NOT NECESSARY OR PROPER, it must have happened that the enumeration would comprehend a few of the excepted powers only; that these would be such as would be least likely to be assumed or tolerated, because the enumeration would of course select such as would be least necessary or proper; and that the unnecessary and improper powers included in the residuum, would be less forcibly excepted, than if no partial enumeration had been made. Had the Constitution been silent on this head, there can be no doubt that all the particular powers requisite as means of executing the general powers would have resulted to the government, by unavoidable implication. No axiom is more clearly established in law, or in reason, than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorized; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it is included. Had this last method, therefore, been pursued by the convention, every objection now urged against their plan would remain in all its plausibility; and the real inconveniency would be incurred of not removing a pretext which may be seized on critical occasions for drawing into question the essential powers of the Union. If it be asked what is to be the consequence, in case the Congress shall misconstrue this part of the Constitution, and exercise powers not warranted by its true meaning, I answer, the same as if they should misconstrue or enlarge any other power vested in them; as if the general power had been reduced to particulars, and any one of these were to be violated; the same, in short, as if the State legislatures should violate the irrespective constitutional authorities. In the first instance, the success of the usurpation will depend on the executive and judiciary departments, which are to expound and give effect to the legislative acts; and in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers. The truth is, that this ultimate redress may be more confided in against unconstitutional acts of the federal than of the State legislatures, for this plain reason, that as every such act of the former will be an invasion of the rights of the latter, these will be ever ready to mark the innovation, to sound the alarm to the people, and to exert their local influence in effecting a change of federal representatives. There being no such intermediate body between the State legislatures and the people interested in watching the conduct of the former, violations of the State constitutions are more likely to remain unnoticed and unredressed. 2. “This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding. “The indiscreet zeal of the adversaries to the Constitution has betrayed them into an attack on this part of it also, without which it would have been evidently and radically defective. To be fully sensible of this, we need only suppose for a moment that the supremacy of the State constitutions had been left complete by a saving clause in their favor. In the first place, as these constitutions invest the State legislatures with absolute sovereignty, in all cases not excepted by the existing articles of Confederation, all the authorities contained in the proposed Constitution, so far as they exceed those enumerated in the Confederation, would have been annulled, and the new Congress would have been reduced to the same impotent condition with their predecessors. In the next place, as the constitutions of some of the States do not even expressly and fully recognize the existing powers of the Confederacy, an express saving of the supremacy of the former would, in such States, have brought into question every power contained in the proposed Constitution. In the third place, as the constitutions of the States differ much from each other, it might happen that a treaty or national law, of great and equal importance to the States, would interfere with some and not with other constitutions, and would consequently be valid in some of the States, at the same time that it would have no effect in others. In fine, the world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society every where subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members. 3. “The Senators and Representatives, and the members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support this Constitution. “It has been asked why it was thought necessary, that the State magistracy should be bound to support the federal Constitution, and unnecessary that a like oath should be imposed on the officers of the United States, in favor of the State constitutions. Several reasons might be assigned for the distinction. I content myself with one, which is obvious and conclusive. The members of the federal government will have no agency in carrying the State constitutions into effect. The members and officers of the State governments, on the contrary, will have an essential agency in giving effect to the federal Constitution. The election of the President and Senate will depend, in all cases, on the legislatures of the several States. And the election of the House of Representatives will equally depend on the same authority in the first instance; and will, probably, forever be conducted by the officers, and according to the laws, of the States. 4. Among the provisions for giving efficacy to the federal powers might be added those which belong to the executive and judiciary departments: but as these are reserved for particular examination in another place, I pass them over in this. We have now reviewed, in detail, all the articles composing the sum or quantity of power delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, and are brought to this undeniable conclusion, that no part of the power is unnecessary or improper for accomplishing the necessary objects of the Union. The question, therefore, whether this amount of power shall be granted or not, resolves itself into another question, whether or not a government commensurate to the exigencies of the Union shall be established; or, in other words, whether the Union itself shall be preserved.


Guest Essayist: Charles K. Rowley, Duncan Black Professor Emeritus of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia

In this 1830 response to Edward Everett of Massachusetts James Madison maintains that a state does not possess the authority to strike down as unconstitutional an act of the federal government.  If you find the essay long-winded, you are correct in this assessment.  It is long-winded because James Madison was a hypocrite on the issue of nullification, supporting the notion when it suited him, and rejecting it when it did not. You may learn from this episode an important lesson about human nature.  The greatest of founding fathers does not always make a great secretary of state, a great president, or a great elder-statesman.  James Madison (and Thomas Jefferson) were no exceptions to this insight. Read more

Guest Essayist: Dan Morenoff, Attorney


Article VII

The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.

We often conflate the history of our country and our constitution, as if the United States of America burst forth, full-grown, from the head of Zeus at ratification in 1789.  To understand what’s important about Article VII of the Constitution, though, you need to think about the government that existed before and authorized the convening of the Constitutional Convention.  Article VII is how the Founders changed the rules in the middle of the game to overstep their authority and remake the nation in ways the Articles of Confederation were designed to prevent.

The United States of America had existed as an independent nation for 13 years before ratification; even before that, the Continental Congress had convened for an additional 3 years – had it not, there would have been no organ of the United States capable of declaring our independence.  We had 14 Presidents before George Washington, 7 of whom were President under the nation’s first written Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.  And, throughout those years, the body that met, with the power to act for America, was the united States in Congress assembled.

It was this Congress that called what became the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  It did so through a resolution calling for states to send delegates “for the sole purpose of revising the articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”  This was consistent with the Articles themselves, which provided a mechanism for their own amendment.  Article XIII provided that “the Articles of this confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the union shall be perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time hereafter be made in any of them; unless such alteration be agreed to in a congress of the united States, and be afterwards confirmed by the legislatures of every State.”

But not all the states complied with Congress’s request that they send delegates to the Grand Convention to negotiate proposed amendments to the Articles of Confederation.  Rhode Island, happy with a system in which it often exercised effective veto-authority despite its miniscule size, flatly refused.  New York sent three (3) delegates, the incomparable Alexander Hamilton (a long-time supporter of amending the Articles to create a viable national government) and two staunch defenders of state autonomy included by George Clinton, New York’s soon-to-be-Anti-federalist Governor, for the all-but-stated purpose of voting against anything Hamilton supported.

So when the Founders met in Philadelphia, they faced a seemingly insoluble puzzle.  They met as delegates of states bound by a “perpetual” confederation amendable only by unanimous action.  They met with the task of proposing amendments sufficient to “render the federal Constitution adequate” to preserve that “perpetual” union.  And one of the states whose unanimous support they needed to amend the Articles sufficiently to preserve the Union had already announced through its refusal to participate that it would support absolutely nothing they suggested.

Article VII was how the Founders cut this Gordian Knot.

They would not abide by the Articles’ rules in proposing a replacement for the Articles.  Knowing that they could not meet the Articles’ requirements, they made up their own.  Rather than allow little Rhode Island’s intransigence to doom the convention (and the Union), they replaced the Articles’ unanimous-consent requirement with Article VII’s rule that the new Constitution would take effect for the ratifying states whenever nine (9) states agreed.

And their rule change was decisive.  As implicitly threatened, Rhode Island voted down the Constitution’s ratification in March 1788.*  Without Article VII, that would have been the end of the Constitution.  Because of Article VII, the ratification process continued, though, and the Constitution won its ninth (9th) and decisive state ratification from New Hampshire on June 21, 1788.  Virginia and New York followed by the end of July.  An election then followed, allowing Washington’s inauguration (along with a new Congress under the Constitution) on April 30, 1789, despite the fact that neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island had yet consented to the new regime.


*          Rhode Island’s version of this history asserts that the state rejected the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights.  This is self-justification masquerading as history and ignores the state’s refusal to send delegates to the Convention at a time when no national government was contemplated and no need for a Bill of Rights even imaginable.  Even the U.S. Archives admits that Rhode Island only narrowly ratified after the ratification of the Bill of Rights when “[f]aced with threatened treatment as a foreign government.”



Dan Morenoff is a graduate of Columbia College of Columbia University and of the University of Chicago Law School, who proudly worked on the Legislative Staff of Senator Phil Gramm.  Dan is currently a lawyer in Dallas.


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


Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18

18:  To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

In a letter to Edward Livingston in 1800, Thomas Jefferson addressed the potential of infinite expansion of national power through the “necessary and proper clause” (Article I, Section 8, clause 18) after Congress chartered a mining company.  Jefferson derided the exercise by comparing the constitutional claims of the law’s supporters to a popular nursery rhyme:

“Congress are authorized to defend the nation. Ships are necessary for defense; copper is necessary for ships; mines, necessary for copper; a company necessary to work the mines; and who can doubt this reasoning who has ever played at ‘This is the House that Jack Built’? Under such a process of filiation of necessities the sweeping clause makes clean work..”

Who can doubt this, indeed?  Especially when, just last year, in U.S. v. Comstock, Justice Breyer led the Supreme Court in finding that the necessary and proper clause permits the national government to remit into federal civil commitment persons deemed to be sexually dangerous, even though the federal government could no longer hold them on a federal criminal charge. After applying one of the malleable multi-factor balancing tests he so favors, Justice Breyer determined that the necessary and proper clause permits Congress to enact laws that criminalize conduct that threatens the beneficial exercise of its enumerated powers; and that, therefore, Congress can imprison those who engage in that conduct; and that, therefore, Congress can pass laws to govern those prisons; and that, therefore, Congress can act as custodian of its prisoners; and that, therefore, Congress can pass a law that allows the federal government to keep those former prisoners “to protect the public from dangers created by the federal criminal justice and prison systems.” Besides, Breyer averred, the new law was only a “modest expansion” of Congress’s power.  Indeed.  Were he alive, Jefferson would recognize the game.

The necessary and proper clause is the Constitution’s version of the “implied powers” theory.  Congress is the American people’s legislative agent.  As such, the people gave Congress certain objectives to achieve.  It is a basic principle of agency law that the agent has not only the powers expressly assigned by the principal but, by implication, also those powers necessary to carry them out.  But there is no need for application of “implied powers” because the people, as Congress’s principal, themselves provided the means to carry out Congress’s assigned objectives.  The necessary and proper clause specifies that Congress has the power to make laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers conferred by the Constitution on the federal government.

The clause has long been hotly debated.  Opponents of the Constitution, especially New York’s Robert Yates (“Brutus”), repeatedly warned of the dangers from an expansive interpretation of “necessary and proper.” They predicted that an unrestrained power to accomplish formally limited powers itself effectively created an unlimited power to legislate through pretext.  Madison, responding to Yates in Federalist 44, sought to tie the clause to the other powers in a luke-warm argument that made the clause sound like the least worst alternative the Framers faced.  Moreover, he attempted to narrow the meaning of the clause to those means that were “indispensably necessary” and “required.” Ultimately, however, Madison threw up his hands, effectively conceded the argument about the dangers, but urged the people to remain alert to usurpations by Congress.

The Supreme Court weighed in with McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.  Chief Justice Marshall rejected the restrictive interpretation of “necessary” urged by the old anti-Federalist warhorse, Maryland’s wily attorney general Luther Martin.  Martin’s interpretation had support both in the dictionary meaning of the word at the time and Madison’s slips-of-the-pen in Federalist 44.  Although this decision is correctly read as providing the constitutional material for the 20th century’s “Big Bang” expansion of federal power, Marshall apparently believed he was much more restrained and cautious.  He even took the unprecedented step of defending that view in a pseudonymous battle of editorials in the Richmond papers with Virginia’s chief justice, his cousin Spencer Roane.  Marshall insisted that, while the reading of “necessary” was to accommodate the needs of the times, the clause had to be tied to the other enumerated powers.  Any such law had to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.  It was not enough that Congress could somehow connect a law to the form of one of its other powers.  Pretextual uses of the necessary and proper, or any other clause, would be unconstitutional.

In his almost flawless dissent in Comstock, Justice Thomas takes Justice Breyer to task for abandoning the Constitution’s text and Chief Justice Marshall’s boundaries.  Thomas points out that the Comstock majority makes no attempt to show that the law itself directly carries into effect any enumerated power of Congress.  At best, it does so through an attenuated chain, exactly as Jefferson criticized in his letter to Livingston.  The only objective that the Comstock Court mentions that the law directly advances is “to protect the public from dangers created by the federal criminal justice and prison systems.”  And that is not an enumerated power.

The necessary and proper clause is not an isolated provision.  It is part of the delicate balance of national and state powers the Framers established in the American version of federalism.  That balance is made concrete in several other provisions, beginning with Article I, Section 1, which declares that “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representative.”  That premise, along with the very fact of a limited enumeration of Congressional powers, is evidence that the letter, and certainly, the spirit of the Constitution argue against so expansive an interpretation of the necessary and proper clause that Congress is given an unrestricted power to legislate through a constitutional back door.

The Court’s expansive and unfounded reading of necessary and proper reflects the dominant Washington credo. One has heard over and over from certain partisans in the debate over the current administration’s programs that Congress has the power to do whatever it wants and that the Constitution has no part to play in the debate. Indeed, judging by the distaste, indeed hostility, shown by some Congressmen to the reading of the Constitution in that chamber at the opening of the current session, raising constitutional questions about Congress’ actions may represent some novel mutation of hate speech. Of course, indicting the Constitution (especially its formal restraints on legislative power) as an obstacle to “social advancement” is not new. Then-professor Woodrow Wilson and similarly-inclined academics charged that central tenet of Progressivism a century ago. How little has changed in the progressive world-view.

At the same time, it is undeniable that, over the years, the doctrine of enumerated powers has suffered severe erosion, an erosion that could not have occurred over so long without the tacit complicity of the American people. They have not been alert to Congressional usurpations, as Madison urged. It is inevitable, as people intuit, and as writers from Plato to Machiavelli to Yates and Madison have explained, rulers seek first to maintain and then to expand their power. Over time, there occurs an institutional accretion of power at the expense of personal liberty, as each precedent gives rise to an incremental expansion. Again, the contest over ObamaCare now playing out in the federal courts is the latest (and perhaps final) step in the enfeeblement of the doctrine.

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. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .

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

After the appearance in the preceding essay of Alexander Hamilton, Esquire, Federalist 33 sees the return of Hamilton, the rhetorical swordsman, slashing at his opponents and parrying their contentions. The target of his invective is the assertion that, though the national government’s power to tax may not be exclusive and can be exercised by the states concurrently with Congress, the necessary and proper clause allows Congress to expand the reach of its substantive powers beyond what is enumerated. Further, the supremacy clause enables Congress to override otherwise valid state laws that are in conflict with such overreaching federal law. In short, Congress might pass laws prohibiting the states to tax in various ways, as a means to protect Congress’s sources of revenue.

The heat of Hamilton’s response is a measure of the significance, then and now, of the bigger question. This is no longer about the power to tax. Rather, this implicates the breadth of the federal government’s power to act and, therefore, the very nature of the federal system and the division of sovereignty created under the Constitution.

This is not the last time that Publius addresses these topics. Madison has his turn in Federalist No. 44. Nor is The Federalist the only forum. The scope of Congress’s discretion to carry into effect its enumerated powers comes up in extended debate as early as the incorporation by the Confederation Congress of Robert Morris’s Bank of North America in 1781. It occurs again with great vigor in the debates in Congress and the Cabinet in 1791 over the chartering of the Bank of the United States. It occurs once more, in the Supreme Court in 1819, in McCulloch v. Maryland. It continues to this day. Not for nothing has this clause been termed the “elastic clause.”

In these debates the course of argument is always the same. As Hamilton points out, the necessary and proper clause merely restates a power that Congress already has by implication. Even if that clause were omitted, Congress could, by the very existence of a grant of substantive power, adopt any law needed to carry out the object of that enumerated power: “What is a power, but the ability or power of doing a thing? What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the means [italics in original] necessary to its execution?…What are the proper means of executing such a power, but necessary and proper laws?” Congress may have only enumerated powers to which it must point whenever it acts. But within those enumerated powers, Congress has plenary authority, including choosing the proper means.

Once a power to adopt any means necessary and proper to an objective is conceded, it becomes necessary to limit the power. Otherwise, an unlimited power to adopt the means needed to achieve delegated and limited ends effectively creates unlimited power to legislate. These “means” can always be connected to some enumerated constitutional objective through linked justifications that, as Jefferson sneered, resemble the rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

Hamilton avers that only laws that are proper means to the constitutional objective are permitted. What is “proper” must be judged by the nature of the power to which it is directed. Thus, the federal government could not control intestacy laws because those would not be proper to the “national” nature of any federal power under the Constitution. Yet the Supreme Court recently upheld, under that same clause, a federal law that provides for the civil commitment of certain persons deemed dangerous even after they have completed their criminal sentences. While the criminal law under which these people were sentenced had a (bare) connection to the federal commerce power, it is very difficult to understand how the civil commitment law has anything but a very attenuated connection to a federal power. The connection (as Congress makes clear) is to “public safety,” which is not a delegated federal power, but, rather, a state power.

Moreover, the recent health care law imposes an “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance because that is necessary and proper to regulate the interstate health insurance market. The necessary and proper clause has long stretched, one might say, the meaning of the term “elastic.” Hamilton declares that the usual remedy for a violation must be the citizenry’s judgment. Unfortunately, when Congress expands its powers beyond previous bounds by pandering to some item on an interest group’s wish list, there is usually a collective yawn from the electorate. Will reaction to the foregoing examples be different?

Hamilton also analyzes the supremacy clause, which summarizes the fundamental principle that, within its assigned powers, Congress has plenary power that prevails over any conflicting state act. That supremacy principle extends to federal statutes and treaties, as well as to the Constitution itself. By approving the Constitution, the states accepted that its provisions superseded conflicting ones in their constitutions and laws.

Indeed, the supremacy clause principle and the specific listing of Congressional powers was the more benign proposal in Philadelphia. Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and other “large-state” nationalists supported the Virginia Plan that would have given Congress both a broader and more direct veto over state laws and the power to legislate “in all cases to which the Separate States are incompetent; or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual Legislation.” One shudders to imagine what policies such forthright grants would produce in contemporary Congresses when even the fig leaf of limited and delegated powers is removed. On the other hand, a skeptic might respond that, by constitutional subterfuge abetted by a mostly passive Supreme Court, Congress has already arrogated to itself virtually the same breadth of power.

Hamilton argues that only federal laws that themselves are constitutional can be the supreme law of the land. There is nothing to fear from that clause, as long as Congress does not exceed its powers under the other clauses. As discussed above, in that last point lies the rub.

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

Friday, June 11th, 2010

Howdy from Texas. I thank Professor Knipprath for joining us today, and all of you who have joined us on our blog.

When Juliette and I were in Boston we ran into a semi- circle of statues surrounding the American flag. One of the statues was inscribed “Religion” and the statue was of a man praying as he looked up to the flag. The other statue was inscribed “Industry” and it was a man at work. The other statue was inscribed “Learning” and it was a young man reading a book.

These are the three virtues that keep America great.

1. Religion – a moral basis for our lives and a moral compass for our country
2. Industry – the great American work ethic, free enterprise
3. Learning – as John Adams said, “Liberty can not be preserved with out a general knowledge of the people.”

I say, “Liberty can not be sustained with out a general knowledge of the United States Constitution.”

Americans are grossly void of such knowledge, even with the “Cultural Elite.” Recently, a respected political analyst stated that the Constitution denied him and women the right to vote.

This statement represents the negative knee jerk reaction to the Constitution and why the “irrelevancy” aspect permeates our society. The rest of the panel piped in about the Amendments, saying that they are a part of the Constitution, to which this particular analyst commented that they should then be taught with the Constitution.

Well, the Amendments ARE the Constitution, the continuation of our Constitution. They tell the history of our country, warts and all, in an honest and forthright way. Why wouldn’t it be taught? The continuing pages of our Constitution mirror our country’s continuation. The amendment process was stipulated in the Constitution because our founding fathers knew the “genius of the people” would want to make changes. It is there for all of us to see – past, present and future generations – the growth of our country and thus the relevancy that the Constitution imbues.

The most ironic question begs, why would this political analyst assume that Cathy and I would want to start a foundation that stresses the learning of a Constitution that would deny African Americans the right to vote, deny women the right to vote? Not to mention, deny the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments?

This is the great challenge that we Constitutionalists encounter today – the misinterpretation of the Constitution – the easy, convenient dismissal of the Constitution as antiquated – the mantra that it is a document that is to be tossed aside.

When we, as Americans toss aside our Constitution, we toss aside our individual liberties. Tread on the Constitution and we tread on our freedoms.
Disregard our roadmap and we lose our way.
Dishonor the principles and we lose our dignity.
Renounce its structure and we lose our footing.
Blight its flame and we die in the darkness of a people who knew not, sought not, her own country’s light.

The learning of our Constitution is the moral industry of our day.

Janine Turner

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010


In Federalist No. 44 Madison completes his list of and defense of powers delegated to the federal government.  In this essay he discusses restrictions on the authority of the States in Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution.  Most of these restrictions make sense, even today, such as the restriction on States entering into treaties, coining money, producing paper money, granting any title of nobility etc.

In Article 1, Section 10, States are also prohibited from passing bills of attainder and ex post facto laws.  I wanted to know more about this, and did a little research in the  Heritage Guide to the Constitution .  On page 170 essayist David Forte writes, “The framers regarded bills of attainder and ex post facto laws as so offensive to liberty that they prohibited their use by both Congress (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3) and the states.”  Essayist Daniel Troy points out “these are the only two individual liberties that the original Constitution protects from both state and federal intrusion.”

It quickly came back to me that ex post facto laws are retroactive laws, punishing an act that was lawful when it took place.

I had to look up bill of attainder, though.  Webster defines bill of attainder (also known as an act or writ of attainder) as “an act of legislature declaring a person or group of persons guilty of some crime and punishing them without benefit of a trial.”

Madison states, “Bills of attainder, ex-post-facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.”  David Forte, in the Heritage Guide, points out that some States had enacted these types of laws after the Revolution, and our founding fathers wanted to  eliminate these tyrannical practices many had suffered under, under the crown.

It is interesting to note that the federal government’s powers are specifically enumerated in the Constitution, while the States’ powers are not enumerated.  By listing only what the States are prohibited from doing, the groundwork is laid for what eventually became the 10th Amendment:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Madison spends a good deal of the second half of his essay defending the “necessary and proper clause.” We last heard about the “necessary and proper,” clause in Federalist No. 33, The Same Subject Continued: Concerning the General Power of Taxation, by Alexander Hamilton.

In both Federalist 33, and Federalist 44, Publius addresses what is to be done if the federal government oversteps its bounds, as many opponents of the necessary and proper clause feared.

Hamilton stated in Federalist No. 33:

“If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”

And Madison in Federalist No. 44:

“If it be asked what is to be the consequence, in case the Congress shall misconstrue this part of the Constitution, and exercise powers not warranted by its true meaning……in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers.”

A recurring theme of the Federalist Papers is that the responsibility to uphold the Constitution rests with the people.

To uphold the Constitution, we must first know it, and understand it.

I am grateful for all I am learning each day.  Some days I learn from an enlightening quote that pops off the page.  Other days, I delve deeper into a topic I don’t quite understand or want to learn more about.  Every day, I learn from all of your blog comments and through our wise and talented Guest Constitutional Scholar Bloggers. Thank you to Pofessor Knipprath for being one of our most frequent contributors!  We love your essays!

Thank you for joining us on this journey, as we strive to continue learning, so we can live up to the phrase our founders bestowed upon our collective intellect, “the genius of the people.”

Good night and God Bless!

Cathy Gillespie

Monday, June 28th, 2010

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