Each year since 2004, on Sept. 17, we commemorate the 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution by 39 American statesmen. The legislation creating Constitution Day was fathered by Sen. Robert Byrd and requires federal agencies and federally funded schools, including universities, to have some kind of educational program on the Constitution.
I cannot think of a piece of legislation that makes greater mockery of the Constitution, or a more constitutionally odious person to father it — Sen. Byrd, a person who is known as, and proudly wears the label, "King of Pork." The only reason that Constitution Day hasn't become a laughingstock is because most Americans are totally ignorant of, or have contempt for, the letter and spirit of our Constitution.
Let's examine just a few statements by the framers to see just how much faith and allegiance today's Americans give to the U.S. Constitution. James Madison is the acknowledged father of the Constitution. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 for relief for French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo (now Haiti) to Baltimore and Philadelphia, James Madison said disapprovingly, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."
Today, at least two-thirds of a $2.5 trillion federal budget is spent on "objects of benevolence." That includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid to higher education, farm and business subsidies, welfare, etc., ad nauseam.
James Madison's vision was later expressed by Rep. William Giles of Virginia, who condemned a relief measure for fire victims. Giles insisted that it was neither the purpose nor a right of Congress to "attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require."
Some presidents had similar constitutional respect. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill, saying, "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity," adding that to approve the measure "would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded."
President Grover Cleveland vetoed many congressional appropriations, often saying there was no constitutional authority for such an appropriation. Vetoing a bill for relief charity, President Cleveland said, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit."
Constitutionally ignorant people might argue that the Constitution's "general welfare" clause justifies today's actions by Congress. Here's what James Madison said: "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions." Thomas Jefferson echoed, in a letter to Pennsylvania Rep. Albert Gallatin, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated."
James Madison explained the constitutional limits on federal power in Federalist Paper No. 45: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined ... (to) be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce."
Here are my questions to you: Has our Constitution been amended to authorize federal spending on "objects of benevolence"? Or, is it plain and simple constitutional contempt by Congress, the president, the courts and, worst of all, the American people? Or, am I being overly pessimistic and it's simply a matter of constitutional ignorance?
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.