Tag Archives: Strict Construction
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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Your portrayal … was captivating.”
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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.
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