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Category Archives: Constitutional issues

I’ve shown you mine. Show me yours. (Part 3 of 3)

Whether the great interests of agriculture, manufactures, commerce or navigation, can, within the pale of your constitutional powers be aided in any of their relations? whether laws are provided in all cases where they are wanting? whether those provided are exactly what they should be? whether any abuses take place in their administration or in that of the public revenues? whether the organisation of the public agents, or of the public force is perfect in all it’s parts? in fine, Whether any thing can be done to advance the general good? are questions within the limits of your functions
To United States Congress, November 8, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders respect jurisdictional lines.
In the first post from Jefferson’s fourth annual message, he reported on 10 areas under his authority. In only two of those did he invite Congress’ input. The second post summarized income, expense and debt. This excerpt suggested areas where Congress might act:
1. Within constitutional limits, could they aid agriculture, business and navigation?
2. What new laws are needed?
3. What existing laws need improving?
4. Are the laws or public finances being abused?
5. Is the federal government and its workforce “perfect in all it’s parts”?
6. In summary, what could they do, constitutionally, to advance the public good?

Jefferson understood that the legislature’s role was to make the laws. His role, as head of the Executive Branch, was merely to carry them out while he saw to the nation’s defense and foreign relations.

“… thank you for your participation in [RCA’s]
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Cancer is not within the federal government’s authority.

… with respect to any application to Congress, it would be inefficient, because the Constitution allows them to give no other reward for useful discoveries but the exclusive right for 14. years: and the care of the public health is not among those [powers] given to the general government, but remains exclusively with the legislatures of the respective states …
To James Houston, February 10, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders accept limits on their authority.
In a long curious letter to the President, Houston, a 52 year old farmer described being in Philadelphia for treatment of a cancer he’d suffered from for many years. He claimed to have been mostly healed and wanted to make the doctor’s cure known publicly. The doctor refused, because the pills he compounded to treat the cancer were a major source of income. Still, for $50,000, the doctor would release the formula.

Houston had written a “pamphlet,” some lengthy, rhyming narrative of his treatment and cure, and sent a portion of it to the President. He hoped to publish and sell it to raise funds toward that $50,000 goal. He sought a patent on his pamphlet. The President acknowledged a 14 year patent “for useful discoveries,” but that did not apply to Houston’s effort. Neither was the national government authorized by the Constitution to guard public health. Under the 10th Amendment, that authority remained with the individual states.

While he could not help his petitioner, Jefferson remained gracious. He concluded his letter by congratulating Houston “on his prospect of recovery, and sincerely wishes it may be compleated.”

Two months later, Houston filed for a copyright on his pamphlet in the federal court in Philadelphia and published it with the title, “A Plan for the Ladies Fund, in the United States of America, for the Relief of Those Afflicted with Cancers.”

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Central Bank
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Let us not go through THAT mess again!

At the request of the Senate and H. of Rep. of the US. I transmit to you a copy of an article of amendment proposed by Congress to be added to the constitution of the US.1 respecting the election of President and Vice president to be laid before the legislature of the State over which you preside: and I tender you assurances of my high respect and consideration.
To the Governors of the States, December 13, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some semblance of unity amongst the top dogs is very helpful!
In what would become the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, each Elector in the Electoral College would be required to cast one vote for President and another for Vice President. Prior to this, each voted for two persons. The candidate who received the most votes would be President, the second most, Vice-President.

George Washington ran unopposed for President twice, so the Electoral College posed no problem. In 1796, John Adams received the most electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson came in second. This resulted in a President from one political party, the Vice President from another.

The election of 1800 revealed another flaw, when Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received an equal number of votes in the Electoral College. The contest then went to the House of Representatives, which voted 36 times before finally awarding the Presidency to Jefferson several months later. The new amendment would keep that from happening again.

Congress approved the 12th amendment, and President Jefferson submitted it to the states’ governors for consideration by their legislatures. The amendment became part of the Constitution on June 15, 1804, when New Hampshire became the 13th of 17 states (3/4 required) to approve it. Two more states followed with their positive votes, making the total 15 of 17 states. Connecticut and Delaware were the only states to vote against it.

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Continuing Education Coordinator, Institute for Executive Development

College of Business and Public Administration, University of Missouri
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The cause is noble, but the Constitution forbids me to act.

Your favor [letter] … and it’s contents perused with deep interest, as every thing is by me on a subject so pregnant of future events as that. but that subject is not within the constitutional powers of the General government. it exclusively belongs to each state … and it would contravene the duties which my station imposes on me towards them were I to intermeddle in it directly or indirectly. I have only therefore to express my wishes that it may some day terminate in such a way as that the principles of justice & safety of the whole may be preserved.
To John Crawford, October 22, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders respect limitations on their authority.
Crawford (1746-1813) was an Irish-born physician, scientist and civic leader in Baltimore. He wrote a v-e-r-y long, well-reasoned yet impassioned letter to the President, pleading for any steps leading to the emancipation of American slaves. He even addressed Jefferson’s musings in his book, Notes on Virginia (1784), whether blacks were inferior to whites.

In a short reply, Jefferson acknowledged the seriousness of the issue and the threat it posed to the republic’s future. Yet, national action was not permitted by the Constitution. The 10th Amendment, alluded to here, gave the national government (he called it “the General government”) limited and specific powers only. All other powers belonged to the states. That included issues pertaining to slavery and emancipation.

All he could do is express his personal desire for slavery’s end in such a manner that “justice [for slaves] & safety of the whole [nation] may be preserved.”

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What I wrote 6 days ago? Fuhgeddabout it!

On the 10th. inst. I wrote you on the subject of Louisiana, and mentioned the question of a supplement to the constitution on that account. a letter recieved yesterday renders it prudent to say nothing on that subject, but to do sub silentio [in silence] what shall be found necessary. that part of my letter therefore be so good as to consider as confidential.
To Thomas Paine, August 16, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Practical leaders know when to walk back their previous positions.
Six days earlier, the President had written Paine about Louisiana and how Congress would need to pass an authorizing constitutional amendment at the same time they ratified the treaties. The day before, Jefferson received a letter from his Ambassador Livingston in France, saying Napoleon was looking for any excuse to cancel the sale.

The President updated his friend in this letter, but only to this extent: Make no mention of a constitutional amendment. The President and Congress would do whatever they had to do to complete the deal, but they would do it quietly. Thus, he warned his friend not to reveal that portion of his August 10 letter, lest his political opponents use it to scuttle the purchase of Louisiana.

“…how excellent it was having Mr. Jefferson
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Deputy Executive Director, Missouri Rural Water Association
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1 Comment Posted in Constitutional issues, Diplomacy Tagged , , , , , , , |

Ooops! We cannot do this unless …

Amendment to the Constitution to be added to Art. IV. section III.
The Province of Louisiana is incorporated with the US. and made part thereof …
Revised Amendment to the Constitution, July 9, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect the limits on their authority.
Six days prior to this draft, Jefferson received word that France would sell its North American holdings known as Louisiana to the United States. He was delighted! He also knew the Constitution did not provide full authority for this action.

Jefferson always maintained the national government had only those limited powers specifically granted by the Constitution. Adding Louisiana to the United States was not one of those powers. The solution was obvious, an amendment to that founding document that would grant that authority.

The President’s proposed amendment went on to provide all the necessary authorization to explore, police, develop and defend the new land, as well as to maintain “peace and good understanding with the Indians residing there.”

The amendment would go nowhere.

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Swat the nose of that camel before it is too late!

You know my doubts or rather convictions about the unconstitutionality of the act for building piers in the Delaware, and the fears that it will lead to a bottomless expence, & to the greatest abuses …
… I well remember the opposition, on this very ground, to the first act for building a lighthouse. the utility of the thing has sanctioned the infraction. but if on that infraction we build a 2d. on that 2d. a 3d &c. any one of the powers in the constitution may be made to comprehend every power of government.
To Albert Gallatin, October 13, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders recognize a power grab when they see one.
In 1789, early in his first administration, President Washington signed a bill authorizing lighthouses, piers, buoys and beacons. Federally funded lighthouses were built on the coast. New legislation proposed building piers. Jefferson, Secretary of State in the first instance and now President in the second, opposed both efforts as not authorized by the Constitution.

He recognized the value of a lighthouse and suggested its “utility,” as he phrased it, was the justification for going beyond the Constitution. But if Congress can exceed the Constitution once, even for a worthwhile purpose, then it’s simpler to do it again, and even simpler a third time. The result would be a Constitution stretched to justify whatever government wanted to do. The Constitution, created to limit the national government’s authority, would come to mean nothing. Abuse of power and “bottomless expense” would be the natural results.

Jefferson’s position was always to amend the Constitution to provide necessary authority rather than do an end run around it, with questionable justification.

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Individual enterprise is smarter than government!

I have recieved the specimens of straw-plaiting which you were so kind as to inclose & …the possibility that you may establish the manufacture in some of the states. but the distribution of powers by our general [US] & state constitutions has placed in the general government no authority to embark in or to encourage … state governments can do it; but they generally leave them to individual enterprize, trusting that the sagacity of private interest will generally discover those pursuits which may be entered on to advantage.
To George White, August 18, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders know who knows best.
White’s wife had perfected a process for braiding straw that in turn would be used to make straw hats. That product was imported from England, and White asked the President’s patronage for establishing an American manufacture. White thought it could pay its own way once operational.

Jefferson declined any help because the U.S. Constitution made no provision for it. Always a proponent for American made goods, he deferred to state action. Even so, states usually deferred to private individuals. Why? Because the wise businessman was far better able to determine economic feasibility than any government ever could.

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Associate Director, Oregon School Boards Association
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Great idea. Not gonna do it.

In answer to M. De la Coste’s letter of the 27th Th: Jefferson is bound to observe to him that no authority has been given for the establishment of a Museum at this or any other place on account of the General government: indeed that this is not among the objects enumerated in the constitution to which Congress are authorised to apply the public monies. whenever the revenues of the Union shall be liberated from calls of the first urgency, it is probable that an amendment of the constitution may be proposed, to authorise institutions for the general instruction. in the mean time it is the duty of the public authorities to keep themselves within their legitimate powers.
To G. C. Delacoste, May 31, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even visionary leaders have limits to their authority.
The recipient had closed his natural history museum in New York for lack of public support. He offered to sell his collection of hundreds of animal species for the formation of a National Museum in Washington City [D.C.].

This was the type of venture that Jefferson, the private citizen, would have supported wholeheartedly. As President, he had to decline. Why? Because the Constitution gave neither authority to establish a museum nor power to Congress to spend public money on one. Case closed.

Jefferson speculated that once America’s debt from the revolution had been paid off, the Constitution might be amended “to authorize institutions for the general instruction,” such as museums. Until that time, federal power was limited to those few responsibilities specifically listed in that Constitution.

Delacoste’s letter is most interesting. He repeatedly addressed the President as “Your Excellency,” a phrase Jefferson probably found repugnant though he was far too polite to mention it. The writer also admits to hard times, having lost his property in “Dutch Guyana,” a result of the French Revolution. Thus, he was looking for a job, too, hoping the President would hire him to acquire more specimens for that National Museum. The letter concluded with an enclosure listing the many specimens he was offering, including “1 black ostrich and 1 Uppoe [Hippo?] from Africa” and “37 individuals from the coast of Guyana among which a patira a Jaguar, several monkeys, a three toed, and a two toed Sloth, a coendou, a Tatou, a great ant-eater or Tauranoir, a middle and a least ant eater &ca”

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Leave a comment Posted in Constitutional issues, Natural history (science)

Religion is none of our business.

In matters of Religion, I have considered that it’s free exercise is placed by the constitution independant of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it: but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction & discipline of the state or church authorities acknoleged by the several religious societies.
Second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect firm boundaries on their authority.
Jefferson reiterated a familiar theme, that the Constitution prohibited the federal government’s involvement in religion, either to promote or inhibit its exercise. That authority was left to the states and the churches within them. For that reason, as President, he had proclaimed no national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving.

Twenty years before, Jefferson’s ban on state involvement in religion was adopted in Virginia. He claimed that as one of three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered and had it recorded on his tombstone. He held that government authority extended only to an individual’s actions, not his thoughts or beliefs. That left religious practice entirely to the individual.

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Executive Director, New Mexico Federal Executive Board
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