Michael Gerson: Renewed zeal for the 10th Amendment

By MICHAEL GERSON Published: July 27, 2011
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For the most part, George Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall endorsed Hamilton's more expansive view of federal authority. Even Jefferson and Madison eventually made their own “convenient modifications.” Jefferson, whose theoretical purity often resulted in hypocrisy, managed to make the Louisiana Purchase without amending the Constitution to enumerate this massive exercise of federal power. Madison signed legislation establishing the Second Bank of the United States. The new government, as Hamilton foresaw, would need to act in a “vast variety of particulars, which are susceptible neither of specification nor of definition.”

A useful corrective

The Jefferson-Hamilton debate has recurred in American history, often in the context of race. Following the desegregation of schools in 1954, 19 senators and 77 representatives signed a manifesto criticizing Brown v. Board of Education, in part, because the “Constitution does not mention education.” It is possible, of course, for a sound argument to be pressed into the service of a bad cause. But any Southern politician needs to be careful about historical context.

It is worth noting that stricter interpretations of the 10th Amendment, through much of American history, have been associated with the Democratic Party. The Federalist founders expressed their tea party enthusiasm in a manner more favorable to federal authority. Abraham Lincoln combined a ferocious commitment to the Union with an expansive program of internal improvements.

An emphasis on the 10th Amendment is a useful corrective. Federal powers must be at least implied by the Constitution, not merely conjured by the courts. A little Jeffersonianism now and then is a good thing. But it is not identical to Republicanism.

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