The Limits of Government

Thoughts from Some of the Architects of the Constitution

The limiting of central government, that’s one of the reasons we fought the Revolution. Besides being taxed without representation, the colonists were being told how to manage religion. The founders believed if we failed to maintain the limits of the constitution, but instead turned to the federal government, we would soon become slaves.

Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but is restrained to those specifically enumerated, and . . . it was never meant they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers.”

 [Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew A. Lipscomb, editor (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, p. 133, Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, June 16, 1817.]

“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: that “all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people” [the Tenth Amendment]. . . . To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.

Thomas Jefferson, [The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew A. Lipscomb, editor (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), Vol. III, p. 146, Jefferson’s opinion against the constitutionality of a National Bank, February 15, 1791.]

“If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the “general welfare,” and are the sole and supreme judges of the “general welfare,” then they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the United States; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police would be thrown under the power of Congress, for every object I have mentioned would admit of the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the “general welfare.”

James Madison, [Jonathan Elliott, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Washington: 1936), Vol. 4, pp. 429, James Madison on “The Cod Fishery Bill,” February 7, 1792.]

“I declare it as my opinion that [if] the power of Congress be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations . . . of the limited government established by the people of America.”

James Madison, [Jonathan Elliott, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution] (Washington: 1936)

“Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance and from under the eye of their constituents . . . will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste. . . . What an augmentation of the field for jobbing, speculating, plundering, office-building, and office-hunting would be produced by an assumption of all the state powers into the hands of the federal government!”

Thomas Jefferson, [The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew A. Lipscomb, editor (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), Vol. X, pp. 167-168, Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, August 13, 1800.]


“The states can best govern our home concerns, and the [federal] government our foreign ones.”

Thomas Jefferson, [The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew A. Lipscomb, editor (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XV, pp. 450, Thomas Jefferson to Judge William Johnson, June 12, 1823.]


“Every member of the State ought diligently to read and to study the constitution of his country. . . . By knowing their rights, they will sooner perceive when they are violated and be the better prepared to defend and assert them.”

John Jay, [The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, Henry P. Johnston, editor (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), Vol. I, pp. 163-164, from his Charge to the Grand Jury of Ulster County, September 9, 1777.]

All Quotes courtesy of David Barton,


About notmanynoble

woodcutter from Washington State
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4 Responses to The Limits of Government

  1. Tony J. Bowe says:

    Great collection of quotes, Mark. Frightening to see how things have changed since those words were first written/spoken.


    • notmanynoble says:

      Tony, I agree, and if supreme court justices continue to adopt a view of the constitution which doesn’t respect the original intent, individual and state rights could become almost non-existant.


  2. Samm Hodges says:

    Although the centralization of power didn’t happen casually, or accidentally. The civil war, after all, was the decisive moment. Of course, not everything that came out of that war was good, but millions of people were freed from slavery and abuse because Abraham Lincoln believed it wasn’t up to the states to determine whether or not slavery should be legal. A couple of world wars certainly didn’t hurt the centralization of power, and our good friend Dick Cheney took the most radical steps in expanding the power of the executive branch (which implicitly eats into the right of governors and local legislative bodies) since the last world war.

    I don’t have much of an opinion either way when it comes to state’s rights vs. central government. I see advantages and disadvantages to both. As long as they both keep their hands off civil liberties (rights to bear weapons, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and haha, well, there are others I would list, but it may cause needless conflict).


    • notmanynoble says:

      I haven’t got an opinion either, except how about following the constitution? I didn’t write it, nor was I there to offer any early affirmations of its interpretation, however it does place strict limits on the expansion of the federal government. I also am not an expert of Dick Cheneys expansion of power, so you’ll have to clue me in, but the Federal governent has always taken expansive war time powers…from the very beginning, which can be repealed when the threat is percieved as gone. If Cheney brought unconstitutional expansion of powers other than for war, then Cheney is part of the problem. But how would Cheney stepping over clearly drawn constitutional lines, make it okay for other governments to do the same? Lincolns action was obviously to perserve the Union which is a far step from expansive welfare programs with taxpayer money to be saddled on the states. To make a jump from powers opted in times of war to peace time expansion in mulitiple areas of life, is, well, a jump. Madison felt that if they took one step beyond the enumerated powers, they would in fact begin to impinge on human civil rights. If it becomes a hate crime to say that homosexual behavior is wrong, where is the freedom of religion? I’m sitting in a biology class where a government funded school instructor is really forcing an endorsment of religion on his students. Human infants have been legally killed in the womb since 1973. In a very real way, secular humanism (atheism) has become the basis of most US government policy. Lincolns war to save the union led to the freedom of countless slaves, but Johnsons welfare movement could well have placed them back into a more insidious and destructive form of slavery. However, it can also be argued that central government can at least at times do what is pragmatically “good”, though often at great cost and poor results. But it takes a lot of money to run big government programs and they are notoriously wasteful, and if welfare destroyed the ghetto, it may well have the same effect on the rest of us. Then there is the spirtitual aspect, if a people look more and more to the government to supply there every need, is the government filling a vacuum which should belong to God? At any rate, you and many others might welcome the big government hug with open arms, but if for no other reasons than my personal instincts and experience, I’ll shrink back. Does that mean I think that every government attempt at helping people is wrong? No, and I’ll cash my FASFA check, lol, but I don’t like it and it gives me a very uneasy feeling. A lack of government intervention at this point, accompanied by a lack of government spending and taxation might do far more to further freedom, prosperity, and cheaper prices at all levels than not.

      PS. You’ll notice I do very little editorializing in this post, but rather let our founders speak for themselves. So instead of approaching the question from a partisan point of view, the post really asks, ” what was the forefathers view of the limitation of government? and “what was their view of how they wanted the federal gov. to affect their lives?” and “Was their view of “freedom” different than ours?”,and have we made a definite step away from the Constitution? These also suggest the questions of wether they understood government and human nature better than we do, or were they just unsophisticates who just couldn’t have grasped the immense and sophisticated problems that face such a broad and diverse society. Do we tread the Roman Road, or try and reestablish the uniquely Christian Republic/democracy we started with? And ultimatly, can any people turn away from their christian roots and really think that any form of government will save them? Not according to Scripture and I think History would agree also.


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