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Uncovering James Monroe’s forgotten Article V address

Published in Blog on March 27, 2024 by Jakob Fay

James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States, is often remembered as the “Last Founding Father,” and although he did not sign the Constitution (as an anti-Federalist, he protested it gave the federal government too much power), his subsequent esteem for the document is evident. Nevertheless, despite his growing positive regard for the federal charter, he never lost sight of the “sovereignty” of the American people — nor that they alone possessed the power to amend the Constitution.

On May 4, 1822, President Monroe approached Congress with a pressing constitutional issue: the seemingly slight question of “whether the power to adopt and execute a system of internal improvement by roads and canals has been vested in the United States.” Today, office-holders would not think twice about such a question, nor would they hesitate to appropriate federal funds for parochial projects. But not so with Monroe. His impressively thorough but admittedly laborious address treated the topic in no less than 28,948 words — a testimony to the seriousness with which he approached the Constitution.

Nearly 30,000 words — more than six times the length of the Constitution itself — dedicated to a single subject: the federal government's role in maintaining nationwide transportation infrastructure. Upon reading his address, one thing quickly becomes clear: Monroe wanted to pursue a policy of “internal improvement.” He believed it would be good for the nation. Yet his profound reverence for the Constitution, as well as the individuals who crafted it, restrained him. He refused to act without assurance that such authority fell within the national government’s constitutionally defined boundaries. Thus, Monroe embarked on a tedious tour of history and constitutional law in search of his answer.

At the core of his quest was the unwavering belief that the nation's foundational document was “incapable of change until altered by the will of the majority.” “We the People” created the Constitution, thus only “We the People” could amend its powers. Without explicit approval from the American populace, Monroe contended, Congress was barred from action.

SEE ALSO: The Long March through the Legislatures

“In the institution of a State government by the citizens of a State a compact is formed to which all and every citizen are equal parties. They are also the sole parties and may amend it at pleasure. In the institution of the Government of the United States by the citizens of every State a compact was formed between the whole American people which has the same force and partakes of all the qualities to the extent of its powers as a compact between the citizens of a State in the formation of their own constitution. It can not be altered except by those who formed it or in the mode prescribed by the parties to the compact itself.”

As noted above, Monroe, the anti-Federalist, once fretted that the Constitution gave the national government too much power. By now, 33 years after the document took effect, he had clearly amended his views. “The history of the world affords no such example,” of such an effective system of government, he said. “It is impossible to speak too highly of this system,” he praised. “So great an effort in favor of human happiness was never made before; but it became those who made it.” 

Nevertheless, he reminded his audience, even in light of the brilliant success of the federal system, “the people” were still in charge.

“The Government of the United States relies on its own means for the execution of its powers, as the State governments do for the execution of theirs, both governments having a common origin or sovereign, the people–the State governments the people of each State, the National Government the people of every State–and being amenable to the power which created it.”

“This Government,” he added, “is also, according to the extent of its powers, a complete sovereignty. I speak here, as repeatedly mentioned before, altogether of representative sovereignties, for the real sovereignty is in the people alone” [emphasis added].

Once again, he pointed out that the Constitution was only “amenable to the power which created it” — the people. “It can not be altered except by those who formed it or in the mode prescribed by the parties to the compact itself.” Therefore, to answer his question, if the Constitution did not explicitly enumerate the authority to improve roads and canals as a federal power, the people, the “sovereigns,” would have to amend the document. Anything less would be an undemocratic assault on their governmental ascendancy.

But how could the people, if they deemed it necessary, amend federal powers? “By the fifth article it is provided that Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments, or, on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several States, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which in either case shall be valid as a part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States, or by conventions in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode may be proposed by Congress,” the president answered.

SEE ALSO: Wilson, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad president

Here, his self-restraint shines. Despite his passion for the project, Monroe meticulously explored every conceivable constitutional justification for his “internal improvements” project, and finding none, he admitted as much.

“Having now examined all the powers of Congress under which the right to adopt and execute a system of internal improvement is claimed and the reasons in support of it in each instance, I think that it may fairly be concluded that such a right has not been granted,” he concluded. While most present-day politicians would simply proceed with the project, regardless of its constitutionality, Monroe, to his credit, refused to violate the sovereignty of the people, highlighting the ideal (and, constitutionally, the only) way in which federal power can be expanded.

“If it is thought proper to vest this power in the United States, the only mode in which it can be done is by an amendment of the Constitution,” he wisely explained. “On full consideration, therefore, of the whole subject I am of [the] opinion that such an amendment ought to be recommended to the several States for their adoption.”

Here was a man who acutely understood the restricted boundaries of federal authority, recognizing the grave reality that no additional power should be bestowed upon this limited sphere without the express consent of the majority through constitutional amendment. If only more government officials today conducted themselves with the wisdom of Monroe, our country would be much better off. Nevertheless, thanks to Article V, “We the People” still possess the power to steer the federal ship back on course.

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