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Constitutional Limitations

Barry Dunagan's Genealogy and Military History

"As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is sage in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions." James Madison, National Gazette essay, March 27, 1792

"Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks -- no form of government can render us secure. To suppose liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them. James Madison, Speech in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 20, 1788

"It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant chances that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what is will be tomorrow." James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

"We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man." James Madison, Speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787

"The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite." Thomas Jefferson

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, elaborated upon this limitation in a letter to James Robertson: With respect to the two words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators. If the words obtained so readily a place in the "Articles of Confederation," and received so little notice in their admission into the present Constitution, and retained for so long a time a silent place in both, the fairest explanation is, that the words, in the alternative of meaning nothing or meaning everything, had the former meaning taken for granted.

James Madison wrote disapprovingly of a $15,000 appropriation for French refugees: "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."

"Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." Thomas Jefferson

"That no free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles." George Mason, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776

"There are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." James Madison, speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 16, 1788

"the true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best . . . (for) when all government . . . shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as . . . oppressive as the government from which we separated." --Thomas Jefferson

"The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Thomas Jefferson

"We must confine ourselves to the powers described in the Constitution, and the moment we pass it, we take an arbitrary stride towards a despotic Government." -- James Jackson, First Congress, 1st Annnals of Congress, 489

"An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens . . . There has never been a moment of my life in which I should have relinquished for it the enjoyments of my family, my farm, my friends and books." Thomas Jefferson, 1813

"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." -- James Madison in The Federalist

"No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854

"We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute." -- Thomas Paine

Resolved, That the General Assembly of Virginia, doth unequivocally express a firm resolution to maintain and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of this State, against every aggression either foreign or domestic ... That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid than they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them. -- James Madison, 1799 -- Thomas Jefferson, 1799

"You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; right derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe." -- John Adams

"The whole of the Bill (of Rights) is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals .... It establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of." Albert Gallatin, New York Historical Society, October 7, 1789

"Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty no Safety." -- Ben Franklin, Respectfully Quoted, p.. 201, Suzy Platt, Barnes & Noble, 1993

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain, 1894

"If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that, if it is comfort or money it values more, it will lose that too." -- William Sumerset Maughan, 1941

"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." -- James Madison, Federal No. 45, Januarry 26, 1788

"I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.' To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundles field of power not longer susceptible of any definition." Thomas Jefferson, Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank, February 15, 1791

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." Thomas Jefferson, letter to E. Carrington, May 27, 1788

"A wise and frugal government ... shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." -- Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Adddress, March 4, 1801

"Government, in my humble opinion, should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government, which as not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind." -- James Wilson, Lectures on Laws, 1791

"It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot be separated." -- James Madison, Speech at the Virginiaa Convention, December 2, 1829

"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." -- James Madison, Federalist No. 58, Febbruary 20, 1788