By Mary E. Webster
March 27, 2014

More often than not, The Federalist Papers explain a subject far more clearly and concisely than I could ever hope to do. Federalist Paper Number 41 begins the discussion about the federal powers as defined in the Constitution. It is clear that the author was aware of the potential abuse of power.

“Some people say the new Constitu¬tion gives the federal government too much power. They rarely consider whether these powers are necessary. Instead, they talk about the inconveniences and how the power might be abused. They may inflame the passions of the unthinking and confirm the prejudice of the misthinking.

“But cool and candid people know that even the purest of human blessings are part alloy. The choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good. All political power may be misapplied and abused. Therefore, whenever power is to be conferred, it must first be decided whether such a power is nec¬essary for the public good. If the Constitu¬tion is ratified, we will need an effective guard against the misuse of power.”#41[4]

The need for a new Constitution grew from the federal misuse of power under the Articles of Confederation. Interestingly, the Articles gave the federal government so little power that it was unable to fulfill its responsibilities without using powers not given it by the Articles, the definition of abuse of power.

“We should not entrust our national interests to a government that doesn’t have all the powers a free people should give to any government. The government that is supposed to take care of these interests must have the power to do it.

“Adversaries of the Constitution would seem more sincere if they limited their arguments to showing that the people can’t trust the internal structure of the proposed government. They shouldn’t have wandered into pointless discussions about how much power the national government will have.

“The powers are not too extensive for the objectives of a federal government; or, in other words, for the management of our national interests. And there are no good arguments that show it has excess powers. If the federal government has too much power, then the difficulty stems from the nature of government. If it is unsafe to give the country all of the powers it needs, then we should downsize our ideas and simply form smaller, separate confederacies.

“It is absurd to entrust national interests to a government that doesn’t have the authority to properly manage them.” #23[11]

Therefore, the Constitution gives the federal government the power needed to fulfill its responsibilities.

“Regarding federal powers, two important questions arise: (a) Are any of the powers given to the federal government unnecessary or improper? (b) Will the total federal powers be dangerous to the States?” #41[2]

“To judge this subject, we will review the powers given the federal government. The classes of federal power relate to the following issues:

1. Security against foreign danger.
2. Regulation of interactions with foreign nations.
3. Maintain harmony and interactions among the States.
4. Miscellaneous objects of general utility.
5. Restraint of the States from certain injurious acts.
6. Provisions giving effectiveness to these powers.” #41[5]

The federal government’s powers are limited by the Constitution. Federalist Papers Number 41 through 43 discuss the specific federal powers denoted by 1-4 above. (Federalist Paper Number 44 discusses #5 and #6.)

The first class of powers secures against foreign danger. The federal government has the power to declare war, raise and equip armies and fleets, and regulate and call forth the militia. And to pay for the military, it has the power to tax.

“The federal government’s second class of powers regulates how the country deals with foreign nations. The federal government will: make trea¬ties, send and receive ambassadors, ministers, and consuls, define and punish piracies, felonies on the high seas and against the law of nations, and regulate foreign commerce (after 1808, it may prohibit the importation of slaves; until then, it will charge a duty of ten dollars per head to discourage such importations). #42[1]

The third class of powers provide for harmony among the States: “regulate commerce among the States and the Indian tribes, coin and regulate the value of money, punish counterfeiting coins and securities of the United States, fix the standard of weights and measures,make a uniform rule of naturalization and uniform laws of bankruptcy, prescribe the way that public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of each State will be proved and the effect they will have in other States, and establish post offices and post roads.” #42[10]

The fourth class of powers includes: copyrights and patents, the federal capital, other federal property, the definition and punishment for treason, the creation of new states, the congressional regulation of U.S. territory, the guarantee of a republican government in each state, protecting the states against invasion, protecting the states against internal violence, paying the Confederacy’s debts, amending the Constitution, and the ratification procedure of the new Constitution.

This summary of the powers given the federal government by the Constitution emphasizes the limits of its power. We now know how easily the federal government oversteps its authority and uses powers not given it by the Constitution.

The Federalist Paper warns: “If the Constitu¬tion is ratified, we will need an effective guard against the misuse of power.”#41[4] But the only way to stop the misuse of power is to understand the limits on the federal government’s powers.

“The people are the natural guardians of the Constitution.” “Enlightened citizens know the difference between legal authority and illegal usurpation of authority.” #16[10]

Our challenge is to help form “enlightened citizens.” Words on paper cannot block abuses of power. But citizens can.

© 2014 Mary E. Webster – All Rights Reserved

Mary E Webster, a graduate of St. Paul College and the University of Iowa, started studying The Federalist Papers in 1994. Her books, including a 10th-grade reading level translation of the Papers, The Federalist Papers: Modern English Edition Two, and The U.S. Constitution: Annotated with The Federalist Papers in Modern English make the timeless arguments within the Papers available to everyone. Webster is related to Noah and Daniel Webster and a direct descendent of several signers of the Mayflower Compact.