Jefferson on how Congress misuses the inter-state commerce and general welfare clauses to promote the centralization of power (1825)

Thomas Jefferson

Barely 8 months before he died, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote to the Virginia politician William Giles about the threat posed by the usurpation of states rights by a growing federal power. He identifies inter-state commerce and the “general welfare” clause as especially dangerous:

I see, as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that, too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power. Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal branch, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic. Under the power to regulate commerce, they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures, and call it regulation to take the earnings of one of these branches of industry, and that too the most depressed, and put them into the pockets of the other, the most flourishing of all.

Even by 1825 Jefferson was fearful that the growing central powers of the federal government were encroaching upon those of the states. In this insightful letter to his colleague and friend William Giles, Jefferson notes that Congress was twisting the intent of federal law regarding inter-state commerce to regulate all economic activity and to subsidize one group at the expense of another; and to expand the notion of promoting the “general welfare” to allow corrupt politicians to engage in costly “internal improvements”. His sad conclusion was that the net result would be the creation of “a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”