The Constitution enumerates the powers of the federal government. But has anyone listed the exclusive powers of states—the realm the federal government may not invade without violating the Constitution?
When discussing state authority, the Founders usually pointed out only that the federal government’s powers were, as Madison said, “few and defined,” and that the states and people retained everything else. But that presents a problem for modern readers, who often aren’t familiar with 18th century language. For example, if a reader doesn’t know that the word “commerce” in 18th century constitutional discourse usually was defined as “mercantile trade and certain closely related activities,” he might think it means “business” as in the phrase “Chamber of Commerce.” The modern reader might therefore conclude that the Constitution’s Commerce Clause grants to Congress general authority to regulate business.
Fortunately, during the ratification debates some advocates of the Constitution did clarify the document by listing for the public certain designated activities that would remain outside the federal sphere. One reason the Constitution was ratified was that the general public relied on these representations.
In 2003, I collected many of them in an article entitled “The Enumerated Powers of States.”
As is typical in academia, few law journals were interested in publishing an article that explained the original meaning of the Constitution and how it limited federal authority. Nevertheless, the Nevada Law Journal, then a relatively new publication, did agree to publish it. This proved to be a very good move for the Nevada Law Journal: In the ensuing years, “The Enumerated Powers of States” has become one of my most cited scholarly articles.
“The Enumerated Powers of States” listed area after area that the Constitution’s advocates represented as outside of federal control:
* training the militia and appointing its officers;
* control over local government;
* regulating real estate;
* regulating personal property outside of commerce;
* the law of family and domestic affairs;
* most criminal law;
* civil justice between citizens of the same state;
* social services;
* agriculture; and
* control of most business enterprises.
Since 2003, I have found several sources confirming this list. One example is an enumeration that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on Dec. 26, 1787, which is reprinted in Volume 2 of the “Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution” at p.650.
The very recent publication of the Maryland volumes in the “Documentary History” has turned up other examples. Thus, a 1787 article by a writer using the name “Aratus” represented that only state courts would adjudicate “Cases of property and right within the state, and between citizens thereof, and criminal cases, wherein the United States are not concerned.” (Vol. 11, p. 41). Another author—”Uncus”—wrote a few days later as follows:
“Congress will have no direction of religion or the clergy,—with the universities, academies, schools, or any part of education. They will have no direction with the state judicial courts, or assemblies—with their pleadings, or manner of proceeding. Beyond the ten miles square [i.e., Washington, D.C.], few are the civil officers which they can appoint.” (Vol. 11, p.66.)
One of the two new Maryland volumes contains a draft speech by Charles Carroll of Carrollton to be delivered in 1788. Although the speech was not delivered, it is evidence of the educated understanding of the time—especially because Carroll had served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and therefore helped write the document. The Carroll speech specifically affirmed that wills and property conveyances were within the jurisdiction only of state courts, not federal courts (Vol. 12, p. 844).
The new Maryland volumes also reproduce another undelivered speech. This one may have had public impact, because it was published well before all the states had ratified. Although it was anonymous, it was almost certainly the finished version of Carroll’s address.
This speech emphasized that Congress would be powerless to regulate inheritances, alter the laws of wills, or establish a national church. (Vol. 12, p. 881). It went on to say that each state will have exclusive control over
“the whole regulations of property, the regulations of the penal law, the promotion of useful arts [i.e., technology], the internal government of its own people.”
Today, of course, the federal government has intruded into almost all the areas that the Founders represented as outside its sphere. In other words, the modern federal government is a creature very different from the one ordained by the Constitution that “We The People” ratified.
Rob Natelson, a retired constitutional law professor, is Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. Since 2013, he has been cited increasingly at the U.S. Supreme Court, both by parties and by justices. He is the nation’s most published active scholar on the amendment process, and heads the Institute’s Article V Information Center. Read more about Rob Natelson here.