Stretching the Limits of the Constitution by Thomas Jefferson
The Constitution was a document created in 1787 that is the supreme law of the United States. It was established to spell out the rights of the people, ensure their general welfare, and ensure checks and balances within the three branches of the government. The Constitution also explains specific limits in the power of the president.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the declaration of independence, was president from 1801-1809. Andrew Jackson, president from 1829-1837, was known for his skills in warfare and his belief in westward expansion. Abraham Lincoln, president during the civil war, was known for his strong belief in the natural rights of all people and his desire to slowly get rid of slavery while also preserving the union of the north and the south. Throughout each of these presidencies, controversial decisions had to be made in order to determine how to best represent the needs of the people and the needs of the country as a whole. Thus, although Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln were successful and transformative presidents, in order for them to carry out what they believed was better for the general will of the people and the country all three of them stretched the limits of the constitution.
Thomas Jefferson stretched the limits of the constitution by allowing the purchase of the Louisiana territory. When Louisiana went from the hands of Spain to the hands of Napoleon, the genius military leader of France, fear ran through the U.S. To subdue this fear, Thomas Jefferson sent two envoys to buy New Orleans and any other accessible land to the east for under 10 million. However, Napoleon, who they met there decided to sell all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson was known for his strict interpretation of the Constitution which meant that he followed the constitution by the exact words of what was said. Therefore he was quick to admit that, The constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less for incorporating foreign nations into our Union. Although the Constitution states that the executive branch has the power to make treaties it does not state that the president can then use these treaties to purchase land from foreign nations. In addition, the Constitution is silent about adding a foreign nation to the union. Evidently, the president’s ability without the joint effort of Congress, to decide matters of adding a vast expanse of foreign land, especially land that was already occupied by innumerable black, Indian and white inhabitants, was not constitutional. Despite his own questioning he completed the purchase and did not wait for a constitutional amendment to do so.
Additionally, Thomas Jefferson stretched the limits of the constitution by taking military action without the approval of congress. Thomas Jefferson armed troops in response to when the captain of a british ship, the HMS leopard, opened fire because Americans refused to let the British search their ship. This act was unconstitutional because a president is not allowed to take war action without the approval of congress. Although the constitution describes the president to be the commander and chief of the army and Navy of the United States, congress is the branch given the power to declare war. It is evident that a declaration of war includes engaging the military with arms, or sending out troops as it says, Congress shall have Power To . . . provide for the common Defence The use of the word provide signifies that it is congress who can provide arms for the common defence, and not the president.
Thomas Jefferson felt that he needed to stretch the limits of the constitution for reasons of expansion, wealth and to better represent what the people wanted. Jefferson did not wait for a constitutional amendment before completing the Louisiana Purchase because he knew if he were to wait Napoleon would have revoked the deal altogether. Thomas Jefferson explained that not gaining the Louisiana territory would be a huge loss for the country because the territory could serve as an important aids to our treasury, an ample provision for our posterity, and a wide-spread field for the blessings of freedom. With the benefits of expansion of territory, increased posterity for the nation, an increase in wealth and the now feasible possibility of an increasingly agrarian society, for Jefferson, the benefits seemed to outweigh the Constitution. In addition, Jefferson went through with this purchase in order to better carry out what the people wanted. In this case, there was overwhelming support for Jefferson to complete the deal immediately, so this is what Jefferson did. Second, Thomas Jefferson stretched constitutional limits for reasons of the protection and safety of the people. For example, although Jefferson armed his troops, a unconstitutional act, he did so because American citizens were being shot at and an immediate response was necessary. If Jefferson had waited for congress approval, there was a greater chance for even more casualties.
Andrew Jackson stretched the limits of the constitution by signing the Indian Removal Act. The Indian Removal Act gave the federal government the power to exchange valuable native-held land East of the Mississippi in exchange for land to the west. The reason Jackson argued that he had the power to engage in this policy was because he did not consider Indian tribes to be sovereign or separate from the United States. He reasoned that because they were not a sovereign nation, the treaties made between the United States and the Native Americans in the past, were not binding since a treaty has to be made between two sovereign nations. He believed that without a treaty proving that the Native Americans had claim to the land, the land then belonged to the United States. Jackson’s reasoning and his signing of this act was unconstitutional, however, because in signing it, he was ignoring the supreme court ruling of The Worcester v. Georgia (1832) case. The case explained, that the Cherokee nation, one Native American tribe, was a sovereign nation as it was treated as such in multiple treaties made between the United States and the Native Americans in the past. According to the case, these treaties were then considered binding because when a treaty is made between two sovereign nations, treaties, like statutes, are considered to be the supreme law of the land. Building off this logic, this sovereign nation was not technically under the jurisdiction of the United States and thus the president had no claim to its land. It is evident that a president can not overrule a supreme court case because of the concept of judicial review which was established in Marbury vs Madison (1803). Judicial review was established by John Marshall who argued that acts made by congress and signed into law by the president are not considered law if they are in conflict with the constitution, and it is the supreme court that makes the final decision on whether an act is constitutional. With the power of judicial review, once the supreme court in the Worcester vs Georgia case ruled that claims to the land belonging to the Cherokees were invalid since the Cherokees were sovereign, the Indian Removal Act which was justified under the pretense that the Cherokees were not sovereign was in conflict with the Constitution.
Furthemore, Andrew Jackson stretched the limits of the constitution in his actions regarding the National Bank. When the president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle along with Henry Clay, created a new charter of the national bank in 1832, Jackson, to Biddle’s surprise, vetoed the new charter. Although the president is permitted to veto a charter passed by congress, the constitution does not say that a president can overrule a supreme court decision. In this case, there was a supreme court case, Mcculloch vs Maryland (1819), in which, the national bank was ruled to be constitutional. Thus, Jackson’s claim that the national bank was unconstitutional was void and was not a legitimate reason to use his presidential veto power. When Jackson later took further action to destroy the bank by removing all federal deposits from the federal bank without the approval of congress, the senate released a formal and public condemnation of his transgressions, known as a censure.
After ignoring both the Supreme Court and Congress it became clear that Jackson was abusing his executive power. He seemed to work independently from the other branches, much like a king. In the political cartoon, King Andrew the First, which directly responded to Jackson’s veto of the national bank, Jackson was illustrated as a king holding the veto in his hand while simultaneously stepping upon the constitution. This image depicts Jackson reigning over the people, instead of the people being represented and having authority. In addition, it depicts that carrying out this veto and removing the federal deposits were all at the expense of the constitution which lay on the ground in tatters. Even more so, it is evident from this illustration that Jackson was not following the constitution because he is drawn as a monarch and the constitution was created, in partial, to prevent monarchy. Instead Jackson ignored the Supreme Court and Congress who are supposed to have checks on the executive branch.
Andrew Jackson’s main reasons for stretching the limits of the constitution was to gain more wealth and property for the U.S, provide for the common man, and do what he claimed was in the best interest of the Native Americans. First, through his policies of expansion, he would be gaining the great deal of wealth beneath Cherokee, and other Native American tribes’ land. (128 Driven west) The land was literally considered to be laden with gold along with valuable livestock and other goods (128-130). This new found wealth and great deal of cheap property now available could help the common man which was a primary goal of Jackson’s. This would help the common man, the working middle class, because there was now more opportunity for them to gain the newly available land, without spending a fortune. In addition, Jackson claimed that the land the Native Americans would be granted through the Indian Removal Act was an expansive republic , with prosperous towns and agriculture. He further explained that it is often beneficial to leave the land of one’s birth in order to have a better life just as Jackson’s parents travelled far in search of a better life. The combination of the land for the working class and new opportunity for the Native Americans, to Jackson, seemed like a legitimate reason to stretch the constitution.
Abraham Lincoln stretched the limits of the constitution by suspending the right of Habeas Corpus. The writ of Habeas Corpus is the writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court. This can be used for people that believe they are unlawfully detained, and want to have their arrest or detainment reevaluated. Abraham Lincoln defended his suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus because it was a time of war where public safety was at risk from various southern spies and suppliers. This was a legitimate defense because according to the constitution the writ of Habeas Corpus can be removed if public safety is threatened. What made this suspension unconstitutional, however, was that he enforced it through his own executive power without Congress. This is not permitted because this clause is in article one of the Constitution which deals with legislative powers, not executive powers. In other words, even if the argument could be made that this suspension was constitutional because he was doing so to protect the public safety, he should not have been enforcing this order, congress is the branch with that power.
Furthermore, Lincoln limited the rights of the people by censoring freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is granted in the bill of rights. In amendment 1 it states, Congress shall make no law . . prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; Abraham Lincoln seemed to ignore this when he ordered newspapers critical of him to stop publishing and ultimately to be shut down He accomplished this by sending representatives to New York to meet with James Gordon Bennett, an American newspaper editor. Lincoln then bribed Bennet by offering him the position of U.S minister to France so that the criticisms he wrote about Lincoln would disappear. Bennet did not even accept the position but the bribe was successful and the critiques were almost all removed. Although congress was the branch specified in not being permitted to make laws prohibiting freedom of the press, it is implied that the president who enforces these laws, can not act in a way that prohibits freedom of the press.
Moreover, Abraham Lincoln stretched the limits of the Constitution by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation held that all slaves held in the rebellious states (ones that threatened to secede from the union if slavery was abolished) were free. This was against the Constitution because the federal government was not allowed to eradicate slavery in states that it already existed. Lincoln’s own advisors, Salmon Chase and Montgomery Blair, thought that emancipation exceeded the scope of a president’s power. In fact, even the press criticized that Lincoln’s actions regarding the proclamation ignored that slaves were considered property protected under the Constitution. The Press wrote, With a dash of a pen it had destroyed four thousand millions of our property. In addition, the fugitive slave clause holds that a person held to service or labor” who flees to another state must be returned to the owner in the state from which that person escaped. The fugitive slave clause in combination with the 5th amendment suggests that a slave, a person held to service or labor, is property and must be returned to its original owner because of its protection under the 5th amendment. Arguably, Lincoln’s actions violated this clause as well as the 5th amendment because once slaves were emancipated, they would not be returned to their owners.
Abraham Lincoln stretched the limits of the Constitution because he felt it was necessary to protect the people, create a stronger government, and preserve the union. Lincoln explained that he did not wait for congress when issuing the suspension of Habeas Corpus and originally issued the writ himself because it was an urgent matter in which the safety of the people was at risk. He explained that it could not be possible that the constitution would encourage just letting the dancer run its course, when he as a president could immediately putting a stop to the danger or rebellion. Second, he issued the emancipation proclamation because in addition to it being considered right morally, it would make the South and North more unified. It would help preserve the union because the proclamation would decrease southern resistance since they would no longer have slaves forced to assist them and fight on their side. In addition, it strengthened the union because it encouraged newly freed slaves to join the war effort of the union army.
Although the Constitution provides numerous checks on the president’s power Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln stretched the constitution and exceeded the presidential powers allowed in the Constitution in order to carry out what they believed was best for the country as a whole in their respective circumstances. Thomas Jefferson is considered responsible for the huge purchase of Louisiana and his arming of troops on the Chesapeake. Andrew Jackson is responsible for the controversial Indian Removal Act and his destruction of the National Bank. Finally, Abraham Lincoln is responsible for the removal of the writ of Habeas Corpus, the removal of freedom the press, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Although these actions all required stretching the Constitution they were done with the president keeping in mind what was best for the country as a whole. These early presidents set the tone for future presidents, who continue to assert an expansive, malleable interpretation of the limited executive powers granted by the Constitution.
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