Tag Archives: Strict Construction

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.

Invite Thomas Jefferson to bring his principled leadership to your audience.
Call 573-657-2739
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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.

“I wish to send a hearty thank you …
Your portrayal … was captivating.”
Executive Director, Illinois Court Reporters Association
Want your audience to be captivated?
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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This is why I should not. (I am going to do it anyway.)

When an instrument [the Constitution] admits two constructions [interpretations], the one safe, the other dangerous, the one precise, the other indefinite, I prefer that which is safe & precise. I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which would make our powers boundless. Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.
To Wilson Cary Nicholas, September 7, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders support clear limits on their authority.
Nicholas was a close friend, political supporter and U.S. Senator from Virginia. The subject at hand was whether the Constitution gave the U.S. the right to add new land to the nation, in this case, Louisiana. Jefferson thought not and wanted to amend the Constitution. His friends talked him out of it.
Here, Jefferson argued his ideal position, going no further than what the Constitution clearly allowed and staying away from what it might imply. Amend it if necessary but don’t make it “a blank paper,” i.e. meaningless and toothless by teasing out whatever meaning one wanted at the time.
Jefferson still takes a lot of heat for espousing “strict construction” of the Constitution yet deliberately going beyond its authority to purchase Louisiana. That will probably be the subject of another post.

“I would highly recommend your organization consider Mr. Lee for an event
and assure you it will be memorable for years to come.”

President, Nevada Association of Land Surveyors
Invite Thomas Jefferson to make your meeting memorable.
Call Patrick Lee, 573-657-2739

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