Alexander Hamilton’s “Implied Powers” Wrecked the Constitution

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which the last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.” [Emphasis added]

Harry Lee, a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention, emphasized the limited nature of the proposed government as he summed up the proper way to interpret the Constitution.

“It goes on the principle that all power is in the people, and that rulers have no powers but what are enumerated in that paper. When a question arises with respect to the legality of any power, exercised or assumed by Congress, it is plain on the side of the governed. Is it enumerated in the Constitution? If it be, it is legal and just. It is otherwise arbitrary and unconstitutional.” [Emphasis added]

Even Hamilton took up the limited federal power banner, writing in Federalist #32.

“The State governments would clearly retain all rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States.” [Emphasis added]

It didn’t take Hamilton long to change his tune. Less than three years after the ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton discovered “implied powers” hidden in the Constitution to justify Congress chartering the First Bank of the United States.

Opponents of the bank, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, argued that the lack of specific delegated authority barred Congress from chartering a bank. In response, Hamilton affirmed the doctrine of delegated powers, and then effectively nullified its limiting force. He wrote, “The main proposition here laid down, in its true signification is not to be questioned.” But he continued, insisting, “It is not denied that there are implied as well as express powers, and that the former are as effectually delegated as the latter.”

It’s important to note that had such a concept been advanced during the ratification debates, the states would have never adopted the Constitution.

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