The Importance of Constitution Day

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The Importance of Constitution Day

by John Pickerill

In 2004, an act of Congress established every September 17th as Constitution Day. This federal law requires that, on that day, all public schools provide a lesson about the history of the American Constitution. One of the most important lessons we can teach our children is that the Constitution restricts what the federal government is allowed to do and NOT what it grants US to do.

This question on what powers the federal government should or shouldn’t have was a hot topic in 1787-1788. At the time there were calls to reject the proposed Constitution due to concerns the “general welfare” clause would be misunderstood and abused. The general welfare clause (Article I Section 8 clause 1) stated, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; …” Those opposing the adoption of the Constitution worried this would allow the new federal government to give itself unlimited power by claiming anything it wanted was for the so-called general welfare.

James Madison, the primary author, promised this was not the case. In fact, he wrote in Federalist Paper #41, “Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it. …But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by the general terms immediately follows and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semi-colon. …For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?”

In other words, the general welfare clause was merely an introduction for the list of enumerated powers that immediately follows it. Madison is stressing that it wouldn’t make any sense to include a list of powers if the general clause gave it any power it wanted. And this list of powers delegated to our federal Congress is a small one. As Madison stressed in Federalist Paper #45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.”

Nowhere in that list of enumerated powers (see Article I Section 8) will you find anything about education, healthcare, social security, environmental regulation, assistance to agriculture or business, housing assistance, food stamps, or unemployment insurance. If these things were to be done by government at all they were intended to be done by state-level government, not federal.

If our children are truly to understand what the Constitution is all about, we must urge our educators to teach them how the Constitution limits the federal government to a very small list of powers. It is what protects us from the oppression of another King George III. It is what made America exceptional and made us a beacon of hope to all the oppressed around the world. This is the most important lesson we can give them this September 17th.

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John Pickerill a board member of the Libertarian Party of Colorado. He advocates for individual liberty, free market economics, private property rights, and Constitutionally-limited government.

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If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Lance Cayko at 303.775.7406 or email at

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