Considering American History, it is obvious that our government has become more expansive and centralized over time. As historian Arthur Ekirch writes, “Since the time of the American Revolution the major trend in our history has been in the direction of ever-greater centralization and concentration of control — politically, economically, and socially.” It is commonly held that the framers of the Constitution desired a limited government and that subsequent government expansion and centralization has been in spite of the original intent of the Constitution, not because of it. What if I proposed that this notion is not entirely correct? Could it be possible that (at least some of) the framers desired a strong, expansive central government and authored these wishes into our founding document?
Author Sheldon Richman, in his book “America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited,” makes the bold claim that “the framers were not motivated by a love for individual liberty (though it had a place in their political vision) and that the Constitution has done a poor job of preserving individual liberty since it contains language suitable for justifying broad government power.”
This is a controversial claim and one with which I am still wrestling. It should be noted, however, as I alluded to earlier, that the Constitution was composed by numerous individuals with numerous motives. Therefore, to say that some of the framers may have had iniquitous purposes does not imply that all of them were evil.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists
It must be remembered that the ratification of the U.S. Constitution featured intense debates between the Anti-Federalists and the Federalists. Thus, there were at least two (and likely more) differing mindsets that contributed to this founding document.
On the one hand, the Anti-Federalists supported a more decentralized form of government that operated as a confederation of sovereign states. Historian Max M. Edling describes the Anti-Federalist position:
“The Antifederalists’ opposition to the Constitution was an opposition to the creation of a central government, which they feared would become as heavy and powerful as the governments of contemporary European states… The Antifederalist fear was that the Constitution would create a state that would bring about a growth of armies, taxes, and public debt, as well as the concomitant strengthening of centralized power.”
On the other hand, the Federalists supported a strong central government with broad, implicit powers. As Richman notes, the Federalists “sought a strong state with the powers to tax, regulate and promote trade, and raise and maintain a standing army because in their eyes that is what ‘a great and respectable nation’ (as one nationalist put it) required to deal with other world-class countries in pursuit of security and commerce.”
Thus, of these two groups, the Federalists desired a much stronger, more centralized government with few limits. In particular, two Federalists, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, vocally supported and worked to establish an expansive central government. For Madison argued, “The evils suffered and feared from weakness in Government have turned the attention more toward the means of strengthening the [government] than of narrowing [it].”
A Standing Army
Madison and Hamilton were instrumental in vocalizing the Federalist defense of the importance of a standing army. Coming out of the Revolutionary War, many Americans were skeptical regarding the notion of a standing army. The Anti-Federalists, in particular, considered a standing army to be both dangerous and unnecessary.
As is often the case in current times, Federalist proponents of government expansion utilized fear and various potential threats as reasons for the necessity of increased government power. Along these lines, Madison proposed that America was surrounded by countries “whose interest is incompatible with an extension of our power and who are jealous of our resources to become powerful and wealthy. [These nations] must naturally be inclined to exert every means to prevent our becoming formidable.”
Further appealing to potential foreign threats, Hamilton declared:
“The authorities essential to the common defense are these: to raise armies; to build and equip fleets; to prescribe rules for the government of both; to direct their operations; to provide for their support. These powers ought to exist without limitation, BECAUSE IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FORESEE OR DEFINE THE EXTENT AND VARIETY OF NATIONAL EXIGENCIES, OR THE CORRESPONDENT EXTENT AND VARIETY OF THE MEANS WHICH MAY BE NECESSARY TO SATISFY THEM.”
Because of the unlimited potential for danger, the central government required unlimited power to respond. It should be noted that these Federalist concerns were codified in the Constitution, as there are no prohibitions on the existence of a standing army.
Madison’s Supposed Compromises
Although he desired an empowered government, Madison was forced to compromise and work with the Anti-Federalists. After submitting to the Federalist demands for the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists put up one last struggle to obtain a Bill of Rights, which they hoped would limit the Federal government. Madison, as he drafted this Bill of Rights and appeased the Anti-Federalists, did everything possible to ensure that the Federal government would retain maximum power. Richman describes his approach, “Madison entered the first Congress under the new Constitution determined to add a modest bill of rights, one that would leave the government’s structure and powers intact while invoking traditional, uncontroversial rights of Englishmen.” Thus, Madison attempted to appease the Anti-Federalists by delineating basic rights of citizens that would not really limit Federal government power.
After considering Madison’s Bill of Rights, the Anti-Federalists desperately suggested one change. Regarding the 10th Amendment, they request the word “expressly” be included as a description of the powers given to the Federal government. They proposed that the amendment read, “The powers not expressly delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Knowing that such a change would drastically limit the Federal government, Madison argued that “it was impossible to confine a government to the exercise of express powers; there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication, unless the constitution descended to recount every minutiae.” Madison’s rhetoric prevailed and this suggested amendment was shot down. Thus, the doctrine of implied powers was established.1
As I’ve noted up to this point, both Madison and Hamilton argued for the necessity of implied powers. That is, they argued that the Federal government required broad powers in order to respond to various emergency situations. Furthermore, these powers did not need to be expressly defined in the Constitution. For example, the First Article of the Constitution contains the Necessary and Proper clause, which states: “The Congress shall have Power … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
Regardless of how one interprets this clause, it does not clearly limit the Federal government and allows for at least some variation of interpretation. In this way, Madison, and other Federalists, contributed vague language that would allow for the Federal government to interpret its own power quite broadly.
As another example, the First Article of the Constitution also contains the General Welfare clause, which says, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
While many have interpreted this list as an exhaustive account of the Federal government’s power, Professor Calvin Johnson argues that this clause merely gives examples of some of the Federal government’s powers. He writes, “Reading the Constitution as giving a general power to provide for the general welfare means that the enumerated powers of clauses 2 through 17 are illustrative of what Congress may do within an appropriately national sphere, but are not exhaustive.” For why would Article I, Section 9, which places express prohibitions on the Federal government, be necessary without a more broad understanding of the Federal government’s power?
That’s not to say that Johnson’s interpretation of this clause is definitive, however, it does show that there are multiple ways to interpret this document. As Richman explains, “Constitutions (rules) can neither interpret nor apply themselves. People interpret and apply them.” Therefore, by including vague language, Madison allowed for and aided the possibility that the Constitution would be interpreted extremely broadly. For who interprets the Constitution but the government? And it is surely within the Federal government’s self-interest to interpret the Constitution as broadly as possible.
Richman furthers his argument by considering the power to tax, the power to regulate commerce, and many other interesting events related to this pivotal document. He certainly presents compelling evidence to support the idea that at least some of the framers desired to uphold a strong central government, rather than protect individual liberties.
He argues that many of the framers “understood that the government of such a nation-state must have the unlimited power to tax, to maintain a permanent debt through a central bank, to regulate and promote trade, and to keep a standing army — all of which was secured, extra-legally and duplicitously, through the process that delivered the U.S. Constitution.”
Richman’s claims are bold but have at least some level of merit. Based on the evidence presented, it does seem likely that at least some of the framers intended for a broad, fluctuant understanding of the Constitution and desired an expansive central government.
- Although Madison is famous for writing that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined,” he also stated that “no axiom is more clearly established in law or in reason than that wherever the end is required, the means are authorized; wherever a general power to do a thing is given, every particular power necessary for doing it is included.” Which is true? Did Madison support few, defined powers or expansive, implied powers? While it is possible that Madison’s views changed over time, his actions and words during the Constitutional debates demonstrated a distinct desire to protect expansive government authority.