(My hero) James Madison was born this week (March 16) in 1751. He is called the “Father of the Constitution” because his Virginia Plan, presented at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, served as the blueprint for the resulting U.S. Constitution. He also is called the “Chief Architect of the Bill of Rights” because in the first Congress in 1789 he wrote and introduced a series of constitutional amendments, 10 of which became our Bill of Rights.
Madison also was a co-author of the Federalist Papers, the most important writings in defense of that Constitution, and his other writings—too numerous to mention—include the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, which successfully supported Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in achieving complete separation of church and state in Virginia.
Yet for all of the famous and wonderful words he wrote, Madison’s most important contribution to his nation may well be one single word that he removed from a document. It was Madison who edited the following sentence in the 10th Amendment: “The powers not expressly delegated to the United States (meaning the federal government) by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Madison took out the word “expressly,” changing forever constitutional law and American history.
Madison removed that word because he worried it would unduly narrow and restrict the powers that the Constitution “delegated to” the new national government. In Madison’s view this new government required broad powers to do what was “necessary and proper” to promote the country’s “general welfare.” In sum, he wanted this government to have the flexibility to meet future challenges and take advantage of future opportunities, which necessitated insisting that the Constitution gave the government “implied powers”—powers that were not “expressly” stated in the Constitution.
Because of that word’s omission, President George Washington was able to establish a national bank, which ensured America’s economic prosperity, even though the Constitution gave him no “express” power to do so. Likewise President Thomas Jefferson could conclude the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of America, even though he had no “express” power to do so.
And on and on. Had “expressly” not been removed, countless enterprises that our national government has undertaken over the years would have faced legal challenges as being “unconstitutional,” thereby rendering the government impotent. Today we would live in a vastly different country.
Ironically, Madison eventually regretted the broad powers the national government soon assumed and often led the fight against them. His about face has puzzled many historians (including me), but if ever a man had the right to change his (brilliant) mind, it is Mr. Madison.