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Madison: Father of the Commerce Clause

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This article cross-posted from Consortium News


James Madison in an engraving

One has to hand it to the American Right. It has invested so heavily in its falsification of U.S. history -- and in its propaganda machinery -- that it can convince millions of Americans that up is down. A case in point is the notion that James Madison, "the father of the Constitution," opposed a strong central government in favor of a system of states' rights.

The fact that Madison orchestrated American history's greatest single shift of power into the hands of the central government and, conversely, away from the states, i.e., the U.S. Constitution, is transformed into its opposite by taking a few of Madison's words out of context and ignoring what he actually did and why.

So, the Right seizes on Madison's efforts during the ratification of the Constitution to play down how radical a transformation he engineered, while ignoring his long record of decrying the Articles of Confederation for their weak central government. The Right also doesn't mention Madison's proud promotion of the Commerce Clause and other important federal powers.

It is problematic indeed that Madison, the Right's new Tea Party icon, was actually the key advocate of the Commerce Clause, which gave the federal government broad powers to regulate interstate commerce and has served as the basis for programs as diverse as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Dwight Eisenhower's federal highway system and Barack Obama's health-care reform.

But the Right's insistence that such programs are "unconstitutional" -- and that Madison supposedly would agree with that argument -- has proved useful in convincing many ill-informed Tea Partiers to dress up in Revolutionary War costumes and channel the Founders' presumed hostility toward a strong federal government.

Madison's Commerce Reform

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Yet, the Right's mangling of this history ignores such facts as Madison's efforts under the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787, to get the states to relinquish control over national commerce to the federal government.

For instance, Madison "sponsored a resolution instructing Virginia congressmen to vote to give the federal government the authority to regulate commerce for twenty-five years," wrote Chris DeRose in Founding Rivals.

Madison's resolution won the support of Gen. George Washington, who was one of the fiercest critics of the weak central government under the Articles of Confederation because he had seen how the system of 13 "independent" states had left his soldiers starving and desperate, without supplies and pay, and nearly led to a mutiny by Continental Army officers marching on Congress in Philadelphia.

Washington wrote to Madison, saying...

"The [commerce] proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure. We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be."

When the Virginia legislature slashed Madison's proposal from 25 years to 13 years, he voted against it as insufficient. His thoughts then turned to a more drastic scheme for consolidating power in the hands of the federal government, a constitutional convention.

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On Dec. 9, 1785, Madison wrote to fellow Virginian James Monroe that "It is more probable that the other idea of a convention of commissioners from the states for deliberating on the state of commerce and the degree of power which ought to be lodged in Congress, will be attempted." [See DeRose's Founding Rivals.]

When that day arrived in spring 1787 -- with a convention called in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation -- Madison unveiled his radical alternative, not simply some modifications to the Articles but an entirely new system that wiped away the Articles' language about the "independence" and "sovereignty" of the states.

On May 29, 1787, the first day of substantive debate at the Constitutional Convention, a fellow Virginian, Edmund Randolph, presented Madison's framework. Madison's Commerce Clause was there from the start, except that instead of a 25-year grant of federal authority, the central government's control of interstate commerce would be permanent.

Madison's convention notes on Randolph's presentation recount him saying that "there were many advantages, which the U.S. might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation -- such as a productive impost [or tax] -- counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations -- pushing of commerce ad libitum -- &c &c."

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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