Liberty Planet Weblog

President James Madison: putting principle over pragmatism

Posted on: October 12, 2012

The campaign season is on!

That means over the next few weeks, candidates for federal office will spend millions of dollars trying to convince you that their particular slate of programs will “turn the country around.” They’ll propose job creation programs, health care programs and programs to help balding men grow hair.

And boy, will we argue. We’ll argue about the cost of the proposed programs. We’ll argue about the feasibility of the proposed programs. We’ll argue about the fairness of the proposed programs.

But seldom will you ever hear anybody stop and ask, “Hey, does the federal government actually have the constitutional authority to implement this?”

Believe it or not, that used to matter.

In fact, it used to stand as the most important question. Because no matter how good the idea is, and no matter how great the program might turn out to be, if the federal government lacks the power to implement it, it should never see the light of day.

In his last act as president, James Madison vetoed a bill that funded programs he favored. In fact, they were programs he lobbied for. The legislation was a public works bill that would have provided money for federal road and canal construction. Even though Madison believed strongly that the federal government should involve itself in improving the transportation system, he vetoed the bill, arguing that the people must first amend the Constitution to grant the federal government the power to implement such programs.

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

Source: Tenth Amendment Center

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