Let's do some detective work

Walter E. Williams

12/10/2003 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

I'd like to enlist the services of my fellow Americans with a bit of detective work. Let's start off with hard evidence.

The Federalist Papers were a set of documents written by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to persuade the 13 states to ratify the Constitution. In one of those papers, Federalist Paper 45, James Madison wrote: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State."

If we turned James Madison's statement on its head, namely that the powers of the federal government are numerous and indefinite and those of the states are few and defined, we'd describe today's America. Was Madison just plain ignorant about the powers delegated to Congress? Before making our judgment, let's examine statements of other possibly misinformed Americans.

In 1796, on the floor of the House of Representatives, William Giles of Virginia condemned a relief measure for fire victims saying it was neither the purpose nor the right of Congress to "attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require." In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill intended to help the mentally ill, saying, "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity," adding that to approve such spending "would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded." President Grover Cleveland was the king of the veto. He vetoed literally hundreds of congressional spending bills during his two terms as president in the late 1800s. His often given reason was, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution."

Today's White House proposes and Congress taxes and spends for anything they can muster a majority vote on. My investigative query is: Were the Founders and previous congressmen and presidents, who could not find constitutional authority for today's bread and circuses, just plain stupid and ignorant? I don't believe in long-run ignorance or stupidity, so I reread the Constitution, looking to see whether an amendment had been passed authorizing Congress to spend money on bailouts for airlines, prescription drugs, education, Social Security and thousands of similar items in today's federal budget. I found no such amendment.

Being thorough, I reread the Constitution and found what Congress might interpret as a blank check authorization -- the "general welfare clause." Then I investigated further to see what the Framers meant by the "general welfare clause." In 1798, Thomas Jefferson said, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." The Constitution's father, James Madison said: "With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,' I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators."

My detective work concludes with several competing explanations. The first is that the great men who laid the framework for our nation were not only constitutionally ignorant but callous and uncaring, as well. The second is it's today's politicians who are constitutionally ignorant. Lastly, it's today's Americans who have contempt for the Constitution, and any congressman or president upholding the Constitution's letter and spirit would be tarred and feathered.