Score One for
October 28, 1999
Jesse Ventura of Minnesota has made some silly remarks lately,
and they have gotten more than their share of publicity. But the best thing
he has said didnt get the attention it deserved.
Ventura recently noted that the
Constitution doesnt grant the federal government any power to
create jobs. No headlines ensued, though they should have. Its real
news when a government official gets the Constitution right.
But the conservative columnist
George Will, instead of applauding, took exception, accusing Ventura of
ignorance of the Constitution. He cited the general welfare
clause, which, he said, authorizes the federal government to raise money
for anything it deems the general welfare.
In fact, the only ignorance on display
was Wills. When anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution
objected that the words general welfare amounted to a
grant of unlimited power, James Madison replied (Federalist No. 41) that
their desperation must have driven them to stooping to such a
misconstruction, which he called an absurdity.
Madison explained that
general welfare was only one phrase in a very long
sentence, the rest of which specified the powers comprehended in the
phrase: the power to raise armies and navies, to declare war, to coin
money, and so forth. If the Constitution had meant to give Congress such a
limitless power to legislate in all cases whatsoever, as the
anti-Federalists charged (and as Will believes), why would it bother
listing Congresss specific powers?
For what purpose could the
enumeration of particular powers be inserted, Madison asked,
if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding
general power? Such a construction makes the whole Constitution
incoherent; yet most conservatives, as well as liberals, now accept this
Madison had earlier written
(Federalist No. 39) that Congresss constitutional
jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and
leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable jurisdiction over
all other objects. He would stress this point again and again,
insisting (in Federalist No. 40) that in the new government, as in
the old, the general [i.e., federal] powers are limited; and that the States,
in all unenumerated cases, are left in the enjoyment of their sovereign and
Further, the principles of the
Constitution should be understood less as absolutely new than as
the expansion of principles which are found in the Articles of
The powers delegated by the
proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and
defined, Madison went on (Federalist No. 45). 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.... 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.
Finally, Madison repeated that
the change which it [the Constitution] proposes consists much less
in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union than in
the invigoration of its
ORIGINAL POWERS. In other words, the
Constitution merely put
teeth in the Articles of Confederation, leaving untouched the great
majority of the states sovereign,
inviolable, and reserved powers.
The Tenth Amendment would
reassure anxieties on this score by stating the principle that the
powers not delegated to the United States [i.e., the federal government] by
the Constitution ... are reserved to the states respectively, or to the
people. In other words, if a power is not granted to Congress,
expressly or by unavoidable implication, Congress is forbidden to exercise
it. By that standard, most federal legislation in this century has been
Madison always denied that the
Constitution would, or could, result in a centralized or
consolidated government. As president, he vetoed acts of
Congress that exceeded the specific powers the Constitution grants to the
So Jesse Ventura is right, and the
highbrow conservative George Will is wrong. Since the Constitution gives
the federal government no power to create jobs, any such power belongs to
the states, if the people of the states choose to exercise it.
A government without strict limits
is tyrannical. Youd think conservative intellectuals would grasp
this by now.
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