On March 3, 1817, President James Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817 – a plan that called for the federal construction of various roads, bridges, and canals throughout the country. In a letter to Congress, the president explained his rationale. Out of all historical writings on constitutional interpretation, I believe it stands today as one of the most important.
Madison’s reasoning was simple – although he personally favored the idea of infrastructure construction, writing that he was “not unaware of the great importance” of such things, he denied the policy’s constitutionality on a federal level. Instead of upholding his own personal proclivities and allowing the Constitution to be undermined, he maintained that the Constitution was one of specific enumerated powers, and the document contained no expressed power for the federal government to do such a thing. “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution,” he said, “and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”
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