Anarchy X: The Tenth Amendment

“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.”

In many ways I consider this to be the red-headed stepchild of the Bill of Rights. Nobody really wants it except when they do, and the only time they want it is when they want to use it as a weapon against somebody else. It only exists as a means of quieting down people who were nervous about centralized power, and since then it’s done little to no good despite the lofty goals it was originally envisioned to provide for.

The original purpose of the amendment was, as James Madison phrased it:

[F]rom looking into the amendments proposed by the State conventions, that several are particularly anxious that it should be declared in the Constitution, that the powers not therein delegated should be reserved to the several States. Perhaps words which may define this more precisely than the whole of the instrument now does, may be considered as superfluous. I admit they may be deemed unnecessary: but there can be no harm in making such a declaration, if gentlemen will allow that the fact is as stated. I am sure I understand it so, and do therefore propose it.

Considering that within the twentieth century we were witness to Supreme Court cases that allowed the federal government to decide how much wheat you could grow on your own land for your own personal consumption (Wickard v Filburn), your house can be taken for private use (Kelo v City of New London), and the federales can kick in your door and snatch up your medicinal marijuana crops, even if it is legal to grow and use in your state (Gonzales v Raich). And these are all just abuses of the Commerce Clause, but I’ve harped on that one before. What I find far more interesting is the abuse of the other side of the equation.

The concern, as I see it, that was being addressed by the tenth amendment was not one of states being able to retain the powers they had enjoyed up to this point. Rather I think it is, as Madison points out, a continuation of the thread that runs throughout the Constitution and the rest of the Bill of Rights: people who had fought to free themselves from what they perceived to be an aggressive, oppressive regime and not wanting to re-create it in the new government they were now defining. One of the chief concerns and problems they had seen was that, being so far away from the seat of power, their concerns were not addressed and their complaints were ignored, and they believed that their local (and by extension state) governments would be more responsive in the event that government action would be needed at all (hence that little clause at the end “or to the people”).

This was never intended to be a carte blanche for state governments to violate the rights of citizens where the federal government couldn’t, and yet so many times that is exactly how some groups have attempted to interpret it. Waving the banner of “states’ rights”, they have tried to circumvent laws and statutes they didn’t like, usually ones that were intended to protect the rights of minority populations. While there are those who attempt to argue the historical implications of the North versus the South and economic issues that extend beyond slavery (some of which does have validity), the core of the issue was that Southern states wanted slavery and Northern states didn’t. This has come forward to us through the years as Jim Crow laws, “separate but equal”, and other forms of government imposed racism, which are times when federal power should intervene to protect the rights of minority populations against the will of the majority in a given area.

Unfortunately this same sort of abuse flows downhill in many ways; states use their power to impose all sorts of laws on their people, such as smoking bans, labor laws, property usage laws, and other means of restricting the free use of property and control over one’s own body. These laws can be and often are popular in the localities where they are passed, or at least popular enough with a large enough majority of the citizenry for that given issue (hence the phrase “tyranny of the majority”). Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be as much of a groundswell from either the left or the right as yet to protect against these abuses.

I believe the original intent of the tenth amendment was to try to bring power closer to the people. The idea was that each state would have a limiting document similar to the Constitution (as I believe they all do) that was decided upon by the people of that state; by bringing power closer to the people, it would be more responsive, but also the limits on state power would have the same effect as the limits on federal power. This recursive limitation would flow down the chain of government power, so that ultimately the people would have power over themselves. Instead what we are finding is a constant tug of war between government actors at the state and federal level to determine who gets to make the decisions about our lives, whether any given action falls under ” powers … delegated to the United States by the Constitution” or those ” reserved to the States respectively”. Somewhere along the line the last bit about “the people” got edited out.


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