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Loose Vs. Strict Constructionalism


Category: History Other

Autor: antoni 08 March 2011

Words: 1488 | Pages: 6

Ordinarily, Federalists have been categorized as relatively loose constructionists and have been known to interpret the United States Constitution rather broadly, whereas the Republicans have often been categorized as strict constructionists and have been known to interpret the constitution in manner best described as "word for word." However, this characterization was only accurate to a certain extent during the years between 1801 and 1817 and both party's deviations from their respective characteristic views were exemplified in their actions during this period. Although the Federalists were typically loose constructionists, and the Republicans strict constructionists, during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison both parties acted in ways that refuted these notions quite frequently. However, this only occurred after determining, in that specific instance, what each man believed would be beneficial to the country in the long run, regardless of whether or not that particular action was in fact entirely constitutional.

Each party had its own characteristic views pertaining to the United States constitution and how it should be interpreted. In one address Jefferson gave to Gideon Granger, a future member of the his cabinet, the President, as head of the Republican Party, he expresses his beliefs that the Constitution should be preserved in accordance with "its obvious principles" and the rights it clearly and "unquestionably" stated (Doc A). Jefferson's precise and articulate choice of words in this passage to a future member of his cabinet solidifies that fact that Republicans are known to very strictly interpret the constitution and its included principles. He also says that the Federalists are attempting to "monarchise" the American government and subsequently revert back to the status quo antebellum of pre-Revolutionary War. In another address to a Presbyterian minister named Samuel Miller, Jefferson also acknowledges that the Constitution did not appoint the federal government authority over any religious discipline and therefore that responsibility falls to the state (Doc B). Jefferson is applying the very principle from the tenth amendment of the constitution that states that any rights not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the state government. He also goes on to add that even though previous executives have been quoted intertwining prayer with their duties, by the constitution he has only been allotted certain civil powers and these do not include the power "to direct religious exercises of his constituents." Another famous head of the Republican Party was James Madison who also maintained strict constructionist principles. ," It was also documented in James Madison: Message to Congress vetoing an Internal Improvements Bill that when a bill was proposed to Madison entitled "An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements" although it would deeply benefit the country to do so, he refused to sign it because it was unclear when using the Constitution as a moderator whether or not he indeed had the power to sign such a document (Doc H). In the aforementioned address of Jefferson to cabinet member Gideon Granger it was clarified that there were also those who "opposed uniformly" to these strict constructionist ideals known as the Federalists (Doc A). Jefferson, attempting to portray the Federalists in a harsh light, states that they wanted to "sink the state governments" which in reality is the inverse of the true Federalist ideal of a strong central government.

The deviations from the Federalists' usually loose constructionist tactics are quite apparent in the time period of 1801 to 1817. As portrayed in Alexander Anderson's 1808 cartoon, the Embargo Act of 1807 caused much political unrest among the people, many of whom were concerned about their own sources of income that would normally come from trading with France and Great Britain (Doc C). The Embargo Act although passed by Jefferson – a Republican – was a cause for great debate and discussion of whether or not it was truly constitutional for a president to pass such an act. However, very uncharacteristically the federalists in this case were the ones to question the constitutionality of the act performed by the Republicans so in this case they are the ones who are really being strict constructionists. Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, very straightforwardly questions the constitutionality of drafting men into the army by the federal government in a speech to the House of Representatives (Doc D). In this speech Webster – a Federalist – claims that the current presidency "asserts the right" to draft men into the army although nowhere in the constitution does it expressly state that the government has that power. It uses phrases like "where is it written in the constitution" which are questions that would typically be the Republican stance in an argument. The federalists are interpreting the constitution so strictly asking in "what article" you can find the clause that gives the country the right to draft men into the army. The Reports and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention plainly state things that were settled in the constitution that the republicans, specifically Jefferson, directly refute in their actions during this time period (Doc E). The Hartford convention established concepts that went against all of the actions of the republicans at the time and in turn was a Federalist attempt to spite them by taking their own strict constructionist approach to the situation and applying it to the Republicans loose constructionist actions. In a way this was the Federalists way to challenge the Republicans' hypocritical actions.

Just as there were deviations from the loose Federalist interpretation of the constitution, there were also times when the Republicans like Jefferson and Madison made decisions that did not reflect their strict constructionist views. Uniquely, in a speech to the House, John Randolph, a Republican, cedes that the government has "renounced the true republican principles." (Doc F). In this speech, Randolph, Virginian congressman, states that Republican principles have warped into Federalist (loose constructionist) principles and that it is unjust and unconstitutional for the Republican run government to instate the proposed tariff of 1816. Statements such as these were distinctly supported by the Republicans' specifically Jefferson's actions at the time. Jefferson states "Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government." (Doc A). By this Jefferson is confirming his strict constructionist views because he believes in the power of the states over the power of the federal government. However, he turns around and makes the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon in 1803, nearly doubling the size of America and making it even more difficult to rule, and furthermore without the express consent of the Constitution itself. Nowhere in the constitution does it say anything about expanding the land of the United States territory, but Jefferson believes that it is simply too good of a deal to pass up whether or not it is consented for in the Constitution. Also, it is not stated anywhere in the Constitution that the President can create a national bank but the National Bank of America was formed in order to manage the countries economic affairs.

Finally, in 1816, towards the end of the aforesaid time period of 1801-1817, Jefferson disclosed in an address to Samuel Kercheval that although he didn't support the loose interpretation and modification of the Constitution, that the laws and institutions sometimes needed adjustment based on "new discoveries", "truths disclosed", and "the progress of the human mind." (Doc G) So, in the end Jefferson himself straightforwardly states that he still believes in his strict constructionist ways but his actions make it seem like this is not so because, sometimes these principles change based on the circumstances. Some of the largest and most important instances in which Jefferson actions reflected such statements were again: the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte, and the creation of a National Bank for the United States. Although nowhere in the Constitution did it specifically state that the president was allowed to expand upon the lands of America, or to take it upon himself to create a bank encompassing the entire countries affairs, Jefferson recognized that to pay fifteen million dollars in order to nearly double the size of America was an incredible deal, and Madison realized that the countries national economy was in need of guidance. In both cases, in order to evade the constitution the President exploited Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, otherwise known as the Elastic Clause. By invoking the elastic clause, Jefferson disguises the sale of the Louisiana Territory as a treaty with Bonaparte, and Madison justified the creation of a National bank although he supposedly believed in a firmly agrarian society.

Although Republicans were generally strict constructionists and Federalists generally had a broader interpretation of the constitution, certain instances have shown that no one party should be characterized as being strict or loose all the time but each perspective judged and each situation analyzed on a case by case basis. In this way separation is avoided between parties and a full and true nationalism encouraged.

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