The Bonus Bill Veto and the Southern Tradition

On March 3, 1817, President James Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817 – a plan that called for the federal construction of various roads, bridges, and canals throughout the country. In a letter to Congress, the president explained his rationale. Out of all historical writings on constitutional interpretation, I believe it stands today as one of the most important.

Madison’s reasoning was simple – although he personally favored the idea of infrastructure construction, writing that he was “not unaware of the great importance” of such things, he denied the policy’s constitutionality on a federal level. Instead of upholding his own personal proclivities and allowing the Constitution to be undermined, he maintained that the Constitution was one of specific enumerated powers, and the document contained no expressed power for the federal government to do such a thing. “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution,” he said, “and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”

According to Madison, using the Commerce Clause, General Welfare Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause as justification for the law “would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper,” adding that an alternative view “would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them.” Madison was well aware of this fact, as his original proposal for government in the Philadelphia Convention, a set of resolutions known as the “Virginia Plan,” called for a general legislative power rather than a limited array of enumerated powers. By the end of the convention, however, the delegations settled on specific list of powers instead of the plenary alternative.

Believing that the power to build the infrastructure the bill called for “can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents,” Madison insisted that the federal construction infrastructure would necessitate the addition of a constitutional amendment that allowed for the authority. “I have no option but to withhold my signature from it” until such a time, he wrote.

Madison’s gesture clearly demonstrates that the original southern understanding of the Constitution was a pivotal part of the American tradition. Although Madison was not always a friend of decentralized, federal government, he deserves due credit for adhering to the accurate version of the Constitution rather than that which he initially favored. It reflected the same genuine theory of constitutional interpretation that was continually espoused by Madison’s friend and presidential predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, as well as that of legal scholar St. George Tucker, whose commentaries on the Constitution framed the original understanding of the document. Truly, the veto of the infrastructure bill was a groundbreaking episode in the entire history of western civilization.

In retrospect, this juncture demonstrates the extent to which the federal government has abandoned the Constitution, making it effectively dead. To come to the same position as Madison on the federal construction of roads in the contemporary would brand one a lunatic or an apostate. This is despite the fact that such an opinion would align exactly with the so-called “Father of the Constitution.”

About Dave Benner

Dave Benner speaks regularly in Minnesota on topics related to the United States Constitution, founding principles, and the early republic. He is a frequent guest speaker on local television and radio shows, and contributes writings to several local publications. Dave is the author of Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution

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