"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," Washington wrote. "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."
Madison failed in his bid to attach his commerce amendment to the Articles, but he revived the idea when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787. Though the convention was supposed to simply propose changes to the Articles, Madison and Washington engineered the scrapping of the earlier system to be replaced with an entirely new Constitution.
There at the Start
So, on the first day of substantive debate -- May 29, 1787 -- as a fellow Virginian, Edmund Randolph, presented Madison's constitutional framework, the Commerce Clause was there.
Madison's convention notes recount Randolph 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."
In other words, the Founders -- at their most "originalist" moment -- understood the value of the federal government taking action to negate the commercial advantages of other countries and to take steps for "pushing of [American] commerce." The "ad libitum -- &c &c" notation suggests that Randolph provided other examples off the top of his head.
So, Madison and other key Framers recognized that a legitimate role of Congress was to ensure that the nation could match up against other countries economically and could address problems impeding the nation's economic success.
After the Convention, when the proposed Constitution was under fire from Anti-Federalists who favored retaining the states-rights orientation of the Articles of Confederation, Madison returned, in the Federalist Papers, to arguing the value of the Commerce Clause.
Ironically, Madison considered the Commerce Clause one of the least controversial elements of his new governing structure. In Federalist Paper No. 45, writing under the pseudonym Publius, Madison referred to the Commerce Clause as "a new power; but " an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained."
In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison explained how the Commerce Clause could help the young nation overcome some of its problems with communications and access to interior lands.
"[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements," Madison wrote...
"Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
"The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete."
The building of canals, as an argument in support of the Commerce Clause and the Constitution, further reflects the pragmatic -- and commercial -- attitudes of key Founders. In 1785, two years before the Constitutional Convention, George Washington established the Potowmack Company, which began digging canals to extend navigable waterways westward where he and other Founders had invested in Ohio and other undeveloped lands.
Thus, the idea of involving the central government in major economic projects -- a government-business partnership to create jobs and profits -- was there from the beginning. Madison, Washington and other early American leaders saw the Constitution as creating a dynamic system so the young country could grow and compete with rival economies. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Did the Founders Hate Government?"]
In that sense, the Affordable Care Act comports with the original intent of the Commerce Clause, to keep U.S. industry competitive with international rivals. Today, one of the heaviest burdens on U.S. companies -- in relation to foreign competitors -- is the soaring cost of health care that has made American products more expensive.