Mises Daily Articles
Remember the Father of the Constitution
We could all profit by remembering Madison's understanding of the federal government authorized under the Constitution, a sharp contrast to what we see everywhere around us.
Hitherto charters have been written grants of privileges by Governments to the people. Here they are written grants of power by the people to their Governments.
The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate … protection of these faculties is the first object of government.
Government is instituted and ought to be exercised for … the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Laws are unconstitutional which infringe the rights of the community … government should be disarmed of powers which trench upon those particular rights.
The powers of the federal government are enumerated; it can only operate in certain cases; it has legislative powers on defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction.
There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied … than … that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong … nothing can be more false … it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil and enslave the minority of individuals … reestablishing … force as the measure of right.
The legitimate meaning of [the Constitution] must be derived from the text itself.
The real measure of the powers meant to be granted to Congress by the Constitution is to be sought in the specifications … not … with a latitude that, under the name or means for carrying into execution a limited Government, would transform it into a Government without limits.
With respect to the words, "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the details of power connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution … not contemplated by the creators.
I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.
If Congress can employ money indefinitely … the powers of Congress would subvert the very foundation, the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.
Laws are necessary to mark with precision the duties of those who are to obey them, and to take from those who are to administer them a discretion which might be abused.… As far as laws exceed this limit they are a nuisance; a nuisance of the most pestilent kind.
James Madison, coauthor of the Federalist Papers, defender of the Constitution before the Virginia ratifying convention, and sponsor of the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives, was the preeminent interpreter of the Constitution for 50 years. He left no doubt that its role was to clearly enumerate the limited powers given to the federal government and to defend Americans from "the first experiment on our liberties" by its hand.
Madison's view has since been turned inside out, and the Constitution converted into a "living document" whose creative redefinition continues to erode what little ability it retains to restrain government within its delegated sphere. If you just ask yourself what the federal government is denied the power to do today, you can see that although the Constitution is still the highest law of the land on paper, it is not in fact. That is why we need to remember and re-embrace those principles, derived from our inalienable rights, that first made America a beacon of liberty for the world.