Monday, November 12, 2007

John C. Calhoun, Nationalist

It's well-known that John Caldwell Calhoun's political and constitutional philosophy changed significantly over the course of his career. But it took the late David P. Currie to drive home just how radical a nationalist Calhoun was in his youth.

In December 1816, Calhoun, then a young Representative, proposed "A Bill to set apart and pledge, as a permanent fund for internal improvements, the bonus of the National Bank, and the United States share of its dividends":
Be it enacted, &c., That the United States' share of the dividends of the National Bank, and the bonus for its charter, be and the same are hereby set apart and permanently pledged as a fund for constructing roads and canals; and that it be subject to such specific appropriations, in that respect, as Congress may hereafter make.

The fact that Calhoun proposed an internal improvements bill is noteworthy in itself. But what is really startling is the argument he made in support of the bill's constitutionality. Calhoun began with what has got to be, in hindsight, one of the more ironic statements ever heard on the floor of the House:
It was mainly urged [Calhoun explained] that the Congress can only apply the public money in execution of the enumerated powers. He was no advocate for refined arguments on the Constitution. The instrument was not intended as a thesis for the logician to exercise his ingenuity on. It ought to be construed with plain, good sense; and what can be more express than the Constitution on this very point?

Turning to the text of the Constitution itself, Calhoun, incredibly, argued that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 ("The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States") clearly granted Congress the power to provide for internal improvements. Calhoun specifically took the position that the enumeration of powers set forth in the remaining clauses of Section 8 did not limit the purposes for which Congress could lay and collect taxes, so long as they were for the "common defense" and "general welfare":
The first power delegated to Congress is comprised in these words: To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises: to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." . . . If the framers had intended to limit the use of the money to the powers afterwards enumerated and defined, nothing could be more easy than to have expressed it plainly. He knew it was the opinion of some, that the words, "to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare," which he had just cited, were not intended to be referred to the power of laying taxes, contained in the first part of the section, but that they are to be understood as distinct and independent powers, granted in general terms; and are gratified by a more detailed enumeration in the subsequent part of the Constitution. If such were in fact the meaning, surely nothing can be conceived more bungling and awkward than the manner in which the framers have communicated their intention. If it were their intention to make a summary of the powers of Congress in general terms, which were afterwards to be particularly defined and enumerated, they should have told us so plainly and distinctly; and if the words "to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare," were intended for this summary, they should have headed the list of our powers, and it should have been stated, that to effect these general objects, the following specific powers were granted.

Professor Currie observes:
The reader will be permitted to find it amusing that a Jeffersonian from South Carolina would find in the general welfare clause authority to spend for any purpose that benefited the nation . . ..

All the more so when that "Jeffersonian from South Carolina" is John Caldwell Calhoun.

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