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.