Tag Archives: Constitution

Hands off God, again. Part 6

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 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Strict constructionist leaders take the Constitution at its word.
This single paragraph in its entirety sums up Thomas Jefferson’s views on the national government’s role in religion:
1. The Constitution set religion apart as independent of that government.
2. Accordingly, he authorized no national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving.
3. Religious observances were left to state or church authorities.

The word “again” appears in this headline, referencing a 2013 post with the same subject and title.

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THIS is how Uncle Sam should spend your taxes. Part 3

these contributions enable us to support the current expences of the government, to fulfill contracts with foreign nations, to extinguish the native right of soil within our limits, to extend those limits, & to apply such a surplus to our public debts, as places at a short day their final redemption. and, that redemption once effected, the revenue thereby liberated may, by a just repartition of it among the states, & a corresponding amendment of the constitution, be applied, in time of peace, to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, & other great objects within each state.
Thomas Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders limit and prioritize spending.
First, Thomas Jefferson limited current federal spending to five areas:
1. Domestic commitments authorized by Congress
2. Contractual agreements with other nations
3. Purchasing tribal lands from the Indians
4. Expansion of the United States geographically
5. Paying down federal debt until it was gone

Second, when the federal debt had been paid, the Constitution amended to allow for it, and the nation was at peace, further surpluses were to be shared with the states for infrastructure and to promote commerce, education, culture and the like.

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I would prefer to, but duty dictates I must not.

were I to yield to my own feelings … [or to] … so many respectable persons as have signed the petition, my path would be easy. but on mature consideration the opinion is that it would be an abusive use of the executive power, and would tend to transfer from the grand jury to the Executive the office of deciding whether a person shall be put on his trial or not. between these conflicting motives of personal feeling & of duty, the latter must be supreme.
Thomas Jefferson to John Peter Van Ness, January 9, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Must a leader sacrifice 154 opinions for the sake of a principle?
Van Ness and 153 other signatories petitioned Thomas Jefferson to pardon Robert Peacock, arrested on a credible charge of forgery. Peacock’s wife, a well-connected woman of merit with two young children, was greatly maligned by the charges against her husband. The wife promised their family would leave the country if her husband were freed.

The President had the authority to pardon and the opinion of “so many respectable persons” was significant. It would be an easy (and popular!) choice to grant their petition. Yet, doing so would undermine the judicial process while expanding executive (his) authority. He was always cautious about treading on ground occupied by the other two branches of government.

Given the choice between “personal feeling & duty,” he chose duty. It “must be supreme.”

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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.

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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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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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You are barking up the wrong tree.

Th: Jefferson … acknoleges … [your letters] proposing that persons should be employed by the general government to explore mines of metal & coal, to assay ores … designate canals, roads &c but observes to him that these objects not being among the powers transferred by the States to the General government, nor among the purposes for which the latter is authorized to levy money on the people, the State governments alone are competent to the pursuits proposed.
To Benjamin Henfrey, January 5, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Constitutional leaders understand the limits of their authority.
The British scientist and businessman had written Jefferson at length recommending the hiring of a geologist/engineer to study mineral ores and design roads and canals in the various states. He also introduced a teaser, volunteering the demonstrate for the President a process of his own, capturing gas vapor from coal and using it to provide lamp lighting.

Henfrey then offered his own services for hire, to do what he proposed.

Jefferson the scientist would have loved the new information Henfrey’s proposal might provide. No doubt he was intrigued by gas lighting. Still, he shut Henfrey down cold. Why?
1. Such exploration was not a power given by the states to the national government.
2. Nor was it one of the purposes for which the government could tax its citizens.
The Constitution clearly left that authority and expense to the individual states.

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How much chain to give the junk yard dog?

And here again was lost another precious occasion of sparing to France the crimes and cruelties thro’ which she has since passed …The king was now become a passive machine in the hands of the National assembly … and had he been left to himself, he would have willingly acquiesced in whatever they should devise as best for the nation. A wise constitution would have been formed, hereditary in his line, himself placed at it’s head, with powers so large as to enable him to do all the good of his station, and so limited as to restrain him from it’s abuse.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A constitution should both empower and restrain.
The French were grappling with the scope of a new government. The king was willing to accept great changes. The result could have been a hereditary constitutional monarchy.

Jefferson would have welcomed such a government, though he despised monarchies, and especially hereditary ones. Why? Because gaining half a loaf was better than no loaf at all.

That constitution might have done what all constitutions should do, regardless of the form of government created. They should grant enough authority to government leaders to enable them to do good, while limiting that authority to prevent abuse.

The reason the French failed to accomplish this might surprise you. It will be the subject of the next post.

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Is being honest all that is needed in a judge?

It is not enough that honest men are appointed judges. All know the influence of [special] interest [s] on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence. To this bias add that of the esprit de corps, of their peculiar maxim and creed that “it is the office of a good judge to enlarge his jurisdiction,” and the absence of responsibility, and how can we expect impartial decision between the General government, of which they are themselves so eminent a part, and an individual state from which they have nothing to hope or fear.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Even honest leaders must be held accountable.
Jefferson continued his thoughts on federal judges who held a lifetime appointment:
1. Even honest judges could be led astray, without knowing it, as special interests influenced them.
2. By their very nature of setting precedent in their rulings, judges sought to expand their authority. Since they were federal judges, any expansion would be of national power.
3. If federal judges were not answerable to anyone, how can they rightly judge issues between the national government, which gave them the office of judge, and a state, which gave them nothing?

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