On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 41 is published. James Madison (a.k.a. “Publius”) begins an orderly review of the powers conferred upon the national government. He makes a point that advocates of big government solutions need to pay attention to, believe it or not!
Stick with me. The point comes at the end.
Madison focuses on the first class of power that he says was conferred upon the national government: “Security against foreign danger.”
“Security against foreign danger,” he observes, “is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” Obviously, the new Constitution must confide “power requisite for attaining it” to the national government. Prior essays discussed whether it was necessary to grant an “INDEFINITE POWER of raising TROOPS . . . both in PEACE, as well as in war.” Madison agrees that such a grant of power is necessary. “How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited,” Madison asks, “unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?”
We can’t, of course. So Madison instead looks to what steps have been taken to guard against abuse of this power.
Madison contends that the existence of the Union, itself, provides protection from unnecessary or dangerous military establishments. “America united, with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” A disunited America would be subject to “internal jealousies, contentions, and wars.” Each would have its own standing army, ready to fight the others.
Moreover, America is protected against the danger of standing armies because of the “limitation of the term for which revenue may be appropriated to their support.” It’s ability to “provide and maintain a navy” is also helpful: As a matter of geography, America is separated from her enemies. Thus, her navy can be a “principal source of her security against danger from abroad.” (This will enable the standing army to be smaller, as a result.)
Madison’s essay takes an interesting turn as he begins to discuss taxation. (He believes it is related because taxes finance the armies.)
Madison addresses the constitutional provision allowing the national government “‘to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.’” Madison is emphatic in declaring that the provision does NOT amount to an unlimited grant of power. Such an interpretation, he says, would be a “misconstruction” of the phrase.
How interesting, because so many today seem to think that it IS an unlimited grant of power.
Instead, Madison reiterates that the national government created by the Constitution is one of limited and enumerated powers. “For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted,” he asks, “if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?”
Basically, if the national government can do basically anything it wants for the “common defense and general welfare of the United States,” then the rest of the provisions in the Constitution are essentially meaningless—a mere waste of breath.
Our legislators in Washington, D.C. need a little refresher on ALL the limits that our Constitution places on them, don’t they?