Exactly 200 years ago today, President James Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817 – a plan that called for the federal construction of various roads, bridges, and canals throughout the country.
In a letter to Congress, the president explained his rationale. Out of all historical writings on constitutional interpretation, I believe it stands today as one of the most important.
Madison’s reasoning was simple – although he personally favored the idea of infrastructure construction, writing that he was “not unaware of the great importance” of such things, he denied the policy’s constitutionality on a federal level.
Instead of upholding his own personal proclivities and allowing the Constitution to be undermined, he maintained that the Constitution was one of specific enumerated powers, and the document contained no expressed power for the federal government to do such a thing. “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution,” he said, “and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”
According to Madison, using the Commerce Clause, General Welfare Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause as justification for the law “would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper,” adding that an alternative view “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them.”
Madison was well aware of this fact, as his original proposal for government in the Philadelphia Convention, a set of resolutions known as the “Virginia Plan,” called for a general legislative power rather than a limited array of enumerated powers. By the end of the convention, however, the delegations settled on specific list of powers instead of the plenary alternative.
Believing that the power to build the infrastructure the bill called for “can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents,” Madison insisted that the federal construction infrastructure would necessitate the addition of a constitutional amendment that allowed for the authority. “I have no option but to withhold my signature from it” until such a time, he wrote.
In retrospect, this juncture demonstrates the extent to which the federal government has abandoned the Constitution, making it effectively dead. To come to the same position as Madison on the federal construction of roads in the contemporary would brand one a lunatic or an apostate. This is despite the fact that such an opinion would align exactly with the so-called “Father of the Constitution.”
Madison’s Veto Message, Mar. 3, 1817
To the House of Representatives of the United States:
Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled “An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements,” and which sets apart and pledges funds “for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense,” I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives, in which it originated.
The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation with the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.
“The power to regulate commerce among the several States” can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms strengthened by the known inconveniences which doubtless led to the grant of this remedial power to Congress.
To refer the power in question to the clause “to provide for common defense and general welfare” would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared “that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.