Strict Constructionists and the US Constitution

Image of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale, 1791.
Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Credit: Library of Congress

 When President George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed in 1791 that the newly formed federal government establish the First Bank of the United States, it rekindled a debate that had begun after the Constitutional Convention. There were major philosophical differences between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists during the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process of the United States Constitution just three to four years earlier.

Federalists, led by James Madison and Hamilton, had used the Constitutional Convention to draft a document that established a new stronger form of government for the United States than the state’s rights-oriented Articles of Confederation.   Upon ratification, most Federalists beliefs made them 'loose constructionists' of the Constitution, although Madison would take the opposite position.  Loose constructionists believed that the Constitution should be loosely interpreted in favor of a strong government

On the other hand, the Anti-Federalists opposed the new Constitution, arguing it not only promoted a corrupt government but that the three separate branches would compete with each other for more power and lead to a tyrannical federal government.  The Anti-Federalists had also objected to the Constitution because it did not contain any freedoms or rights for individuals, which was commonplace in state constitutions at the time, contrary to the British constitution that did not contain any written protections.

Their objection led to the 'Bill of Rights' being drafted in order to persuade Massachusetts and several other states to ratify the Constitution to replace the Articles. 
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were two of the more ardent Anti-Federalists, and after the Constitution had been ratified, it was their view that it should be strictly construed – thus they were 'strict constructionists'.

 The strict constructionists believed in state’s rights over a strong federal government. 

 

Hamilton’s proposal that the bank would be funded through the sale of $10 million in stock and that the federal government would purchase $2 million of this stock through the use of a loan by the bank due to the fact that the U.S. Treasury did not have the requisite monies to purchase the stock.
On February 25, 1791, Congress authorized the establishment of the Bank of the United States, and the bill was sent to President Washington for his signature. Two of Washington’s Cabinet members – Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – counselled the President that the establishment of the bank would be unconstitutional. 

Jefferson argued that since the Constitution did not expressly allow the federal government to establish a bank, Congress was not authorized to pass this legislation. He pointed to the Tenth Amendment which said that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Therefore only the individual states could establish a bank.  

Jefferson’s argument was buttressed by the following language that he had penned in the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Clearly, Jefferson believed that a Constitution should be given a literal interpretation.

 

Hamilton argued that the “necessary and proper clause” contained in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution supported the government’s establishment of a bank. This clause is also known as the “elastic clause” and provides that “The Congress shall have power . . . To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested . . . in the government of the United States.”

The Bank of the United States issue resulted in the formation of the Jeffersonian Republican Party led by Jefferson and Madison, which eventually would be named the Democratic-Republican before finally becoming the Democratic Party. Hamilton and John Adams would form the Federalist Party. The two parties differed in their beliefs in how the Constitution should be interpreted:  strictly or loosely.