March 4th marks the anniversary of the beginning of government under the U.S. Constitution in 1789. It seldom gets any popular attention. But it certainly deserves some, especially in an era when we have moved so far from the very limited government the Constitution authorized (limits enhanced by the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791) with American citizens as the clear losers.
One useful way to mark this uncelebrated date might be to remember what James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” had to say about its meaning. After all, no one in our founding generation had a greater hand in constructing and interpreting the highest law of the land, and his understanding of a tightly limited government stands sharply at odds with the Brobdingnagian role our government has since arrogated to itself.
“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.”
“All power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people.”
“The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate...protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”
“In a just and free government…rights of both property and of persons ought to be effectively guarded.”
“True liberty…the Constitution…is its palladium.”
“I am dogmatically attached to the Constitution in every clause, syllable, and letter.”
“The meaning of the Constitution should be fixed and known.”
“The legitimate meanings of [the Constitution] must be derived from the text itself.”
“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.”
“Equal laws, protecting equal rights.”
“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.”
“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 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.”
“There is no maxim…more liable to be misapplied…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...re-establishing...force as the measure of right.”
“Laws are unconstitutional which infringe on the rights of the community ...government should be disarmed of powers which trench upon those particular rights.”
James Madison, author of many of the most important Federalist Papers, defender of the Constitution before the Virginia ratifying convention, and sponsor of the Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives, was the preeminent interpreter of the Constitution for half a century. He made it clear that its role was to clearly enumerate the limited powers given to the federal government and to defend Americans from “the first experiment on our liberties” by its hand.
Madison left no doubt that the Constitution was to remain the highest law of the land in fact as well as on paper because only then could our liberties be defended against government abuse. The Constitution was not to be a “living document” that could transform its protections into excuses for the government overstepping of its limited, delegated sphere.
The anniversary of American government under the Constitution is an appropriate occasion to remember that, as we have increasingly abandoned its protections against predatory government, the intended servants of our rights and freedoms now act more and more like masters than servants.