Do Americans Respect Our Constitution?

Each year since 2004, on September 17th, we commemorate the September 17, 1787 signing of the United States Constitution by thirty-nine American statesmen. Legislation creating Constitution Day was fathered by Senator Robert Byrd and requires federal agencies, and every school that receives federal funds, including universities, to have some kind of educational program on the Constitution.

I cannot think of legislation that makes greater mockery of the Constitution, or a more constitutionally odious person to father it – Senator Byrd, a person who is known as, and proudly wears the label, A King of Pork.

Let’s examine just a few statements by the framers, and some of their successors, to see just how much faith and allegiance today’s Americans give to the U.S. Constitution.

James Madison is acknowledged as the father of the constitution. Surely he would know what the Constitution permits and doesn’t permit. In 1794, Congress appropriated $15,000 for relief for French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo (now Haiti) to Baltimore and Philadelphia. James Madison said, “I cannot undertake to 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.” Today, at least two-thirds of a $2.7 trillion federal budget is spent on the “objects of benevolence.” That includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid to higher education, farm and business subsidies, welfare, ad nauseam.

A few years later James Madison’s vision was repeated by Virginia Representative William Giles, who condemned a relief measure for fire victims. Giles insisted that it was neither the purpose nor a right of Congress to “attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require.”

A few presidents had similar constitutional respect. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill saying, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity,” adding that to approve the measure “would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”

President Grover Cleveland vetoed many congressional appropriations, often saying there was no constitutional authority for such an appropriation. Vetoing a bill for relief charity, President Cleveland said, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Americans, ignorant of the constitution, might argue that the Constitution’s ” general welfare” clause permits today’s spending. Here’s what James Madison said, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifi­cally enumerated.”

James Madison explained the limits on federal power in Federalist Paper Number 45: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined . . . to be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.”

Here are my questions to you: Has our constitution been amended to authorize federal spending “on objects of benevolence?” Or, is it plain and simple constitutional contempt by Congress, the presidency, the courts, and worse of all, the American people? Or, am I being overly pessimistic and it’s simply a matter of ignorance, something that can be cured?