The Wisdom of James Madison

JAMES Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” deserves to be remembered, since no one had a greater hand in constructing and interpreting what was, at least once, the highest law of the land. His understanding is especially important today, given how far we have moved away from the very limited government the Constitution authorized. Instead, we have moved toward a government whose checks and balances have largely become a contest for power won by whichever branch oversteps its authority the furthest, with citizens the only clear and permanent losers.

All Americans could profit by heeding what James Madison had to say about the role the Constitution actually authorized for the federal government.

Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. In a just and free government … the rights both of property and of persons ought to be effectually guarded. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate … The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.

Government is instituted and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of Government is a misfortune. Hitherto charters have been written grants of privileges by Governments to the people. Here they are written grants of power by the people to their Governments.

The people of the United States enjoy the great merit of having established a system of Government on the basis of human rights … with the best security for public order and individual liberty.

Extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled.

The powers of the federal government are enumerated; it can only operate in certain cases; it has legislative powers on defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction.

[The Constitution] may be one means to control the majority from those acts to which they might be otherwise inclined. I am dogmatically attached to the Constitution in every clause, syllable, and letter.

Laws are unconstitutional which infringe on the rights of the community … it is proper that every government should be disarmed of powers which trench upon those particular rights. The present charges of usurpations and abuses of power are not that they are measures of the Government violating the will of the constituents … but that they are measures of a majority of the constituents themselves, oppressing the minority through the forms of the government.

There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore, needs more elucidation than … that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong … nothing can be more false … it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil and enslave the minority of individuals.… In fact, it is only reestablishing, under another name and a more specious form, force as the measure of right.

The legitimate meanings of [the Constitution] must be derived from the text itself. The real measure of the powers meant to be granted to Congress by the Constitution is to be sought in the specifications … not … with a latitude that, under the name or means for carrying into execution a limited Government, would transform it into a Government without limits.

The meaning collected from the general scope, and from a collation of the several parts … ought not to be affected by a particular word or phrase not irreconcilable with all the rest, and not made more precise, because no danger of their being misunderstood was thought of.

With respect to the words, “general welfare,” I have always regarded them as qualified by the details of power connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution… not contemplated by the creators.

I cannot … lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents. If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money … the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers. If Congress can employ money indefinitely … the powers of Congress would subvert the very foundation, the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.

As far as laws are necessary to mark with precision the duties of those who are to obey them, and to take from those who are to administer them a discretion which might be abused, their number is the price of liberty. As far as laws exceed this limit they are a nuisance; a nuisance of the most pestilent kind.

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