James Madison letter to James Robertson

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James Madison letter to James Robertson  (1831) 
by James Madison
A private letter to James Robertson from James Madison, written April 20, 1831, in which Madison suggests how to interpret the United States Constitution with regards to the admission of new states and the "general welfare" clause.


Montpellier, April 20, 1831.

Dear Sir,—Your letter of the 3d instant, post-marked the 5th, was not received till the day before yesterday, the 18th. I know not that I can say anything on the constitutional points stated, which has not been substantially said in publications into which I have been heretofore led. In general, I adhere to the remark, that the proper way to understand our novel and complex system of government is to avoid, as much as may be, the use of technical terms and phrases appropriate to other forms, and to examine the process of its formation, the peculiarity of its structure, and the limitation and distribution of its powers. Much of the constitutional controversy which has prevailed has turned, as often happens, on the different ideas attached to the language employed, and would have been obviated by previous definitions of its terms. That the people of the United States formed the Constitution, will be denied or affirmed according to the sense in which the expression is understood. The main question is, whether they have not given to the charter a sanction in a capacity and a mode that shuts the door against all such disuniting and nullifying doctrines as those lately advanced.

If the authority to admit new States be sufficiently conveyed by the text of the Constitution, there would seem to be not more difficulty in the principle of the case than in that of naturalizing an alien, at least where the territory of the admitted State made a part of the original domain. In the case of an acquired territory, with its inhabitants, as in that of Louisiana, the questions belonging to it are questions of construction, turning on the constitutional authority to acquire, and to admit when acquired. You are no doubt aware that such questions were actually raised on that occasion.

With respect to the words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators. If the words obtained so readily a place in the "Articles of Confederation," and received so little notice in their admission into the present Constitution, and retained for so long a time a silent place in both, the fairest explanation is, that the words, in the alternative of meaning nothing or meaning everything, had the former meaning taken for granted.

I have availed myself, sir, of your permission to give a brief answer to your letter, and the rather as the interval between its receipt and your intended departure for the West did not well admit of a long one. Nor, indeed, with more time, could I have added much to it that would not have been superfluous to you, as well as inconvenient at the octogenary age of which I am reminded whenever I take up my pen on such subjects.

With friendly salutations,