Reprinted from Consortium News
A central part of the American Right's false Founding Narrative is that the Tenth Amendment trumps the Constitution's creation of a powerful central government that possesses a mandate to do what's necessary to provide for the country's "general Welfare." In Right-Wing World, the Tenth Amendment gives nearly all powers to the states.
Yet, the reality is that the Tenth Amendment is one of the most meaningless of all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, except maybe the Eighteenth, which prohibited the sale of liquor and was subsequently repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment.
But the relevant point is that the Constitution granted nearly unlimited power to the U.S. Congress to enact legislation on behalf of "the general Welfare" -- within the context of republican governance, with the approval of the U.S. president, and with the sign-off of the U.S. Supreme Court.
This concept -- embraced by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and other Framers -- was to rely on the Constitution's intricate checks and balances to prevent government overreach, not to hamstring the people's elected representatives from doing what was necessary to build the nation both then and in the future.
This reality of what was done in Philadelphia in 1787 was not lost on either supporters or opponents of the Constitution. The so-called Anti-Federalists were shocked that the Federalists had, in effect, hijacked the Constitutional Convention away from its original goal of amending the Articles of Confederation, which made the states "sovereign" and "independent" and left the central government as merely a "firm league of friendship."
But General George Washington, in particular, despised the concept of states' rights, since he had seen his Continental Army go without pay and supplies -- to nearly starve -- during the Revolutionary War. He was joined in this sentiment by his bright protege Madison and his old wartime aide-de-camp Hamilton.
So, the Constitutional Convention tossed out the Articles of Confederation and proposed a new structure making "We the People of the United States" the nation's new sovereign and relegating the states to an inferior status, what Madison called "subordinately useful."
I realize that this reality -- or my pointing it out -- makes some people angry. They want to believe that their hatred of the federal government matched what the Framers felt. And the Right has done a remarkable job in propagandizing a large segment of the U.S. population into believing this invented narrative.
Some right-wing believers even insist that any action by the U.S. government to provide for "the general Welfare" is "unconstitutional," such as the Affordable Care Act which addressed what was an undeniable threat to "the general Welfare," the fact that tens of millions of Americans were forced to live in fear of premature death because they could not afford health insurance.
But the Framers' mandate to provide for "the general Welfare" was not some mistake or afterthought. It is included both in the famous Preamble and in Article One, Section Eight, which delineates the so-called "enumerated powers." There, the Constitution states "That Congress shall have Power To " provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States," with the only stated restriction that "all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States."
Article One, Section Eight further grants Congress the power "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."
Put together, as Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists noted, the Constitution empowered Congress to do what was needed to protect and build the new nation. As historian Jada Thacker wrote, "these clauses -- restated in the vernacular -- flatly announce that 'Congress can make any law it feels is necessary to provide for whatever it considers the general welfare of the country.'"
And that was not just the view of the Federalists back then or some historian today. It was why the enemies of the Constitution fought so hard to block its ratification in 1788. For instance, New Yorker Robert Yates, who walked out of the convention in protest, wrote a month after the Constitution had been completed:
"This government is to possess absolute and uncontrollable power, legislative, executive and judicial, with respect to every object to which it extends. ... The government then, so far as it extends, is a complete one. ... It has the authority to make laws which will affect the lives, the liberty, and the property of every man in the United States; nor can the constitution or the laws of any state, in any way prevent or impede the full and complete execution of every power given."
Madison, then a staunch Federalist, had favored giving even more power to Congress and making the states even more subordinate. "Madison wanted the federal assembly to have a veto over the state assemblies," wrote David Wootton, author of The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. But Madison's veto idea was jettisoned in favor of giving the federal courts the power to judge whether state laws violated the Constitution.