A Series on the Constitutional Amendments: The Tenth

‘For states’ rights advocates, the Constitution is like a contract that is openly violated by one party with impunity. On paper, the states remain sovereign powers, while in reality the federal government appears able to dictate everything from the ingredients of school lunches to speed limits. Congress now routinely collects taxes in order to return the money to the states with conditions on their conforming to federal demands.’

 – Jonathan Turley

The United States is not a Democracy. The United States is a Constitutional Republic based on the idea that the smaller states should not be overrun by those states with larger populations. In addition to this, the founding fathers recognized that the needs of a farmer in Virginia would not match the needs of a bank teller in Connecticut. The solution to this problem was the Constitution of the United States. As we address the Tenth Amendment here, the book is closed on the Bill of Rights and next week will begin a discussion of other Amendments to the Constitution that came after the founders completed their work.

The Tenth Amendment has its roots in the idea of federalism and reads:

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 essence this Amendment is giving a lot of power to the States over their own affairs. One of the defining characteristics of the United States is that while the Federal government does control a lot of things regarding foreign affairs and the military much of the legislation of the smaller business is left to the states.

It is worth noting that while slavery was really the crux of the Civil War, the arguments made were not specifically regarding slavery. The Southern States held that the Constitution didn’t say anything about slavery and that they should be allowed to hold slaves based on their own state laws.

The problem arises by the fact that the Constitution allows for Amendments and the southern states were starting to lose support from the northern states and even some of the southern ones. There was a general idea that a Constitutional Amendment would end slavery nationwide and the Southern States wanted to part in that so they attempted to secede after anti-slavery Lincoln won the presidency.

Although the Tenth Amendment does leave much of the legislation of the country up to the individual states, there are certain areas where this has been left in contention. In Bond v. United States (2010) the Supreme Court held that someone convicted under a federal law does indeed have standing to appeal that on the grounds of the Tenth Amendment.This was a unanimous decision simply because cases such as these deal with Federal law overreaching into powers reserved for the states.

A severe area of contention is the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution which reads:

‘This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.’

McCulloh v. Maryland (1819) was a very early court case dealing with the strenuous relationship between the Supremacy Clause and the Tenth Amendment. In this case, the Supreme Court ordered that because of the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution the State of Maryland was outside its bounds in taxing the National Bank even under the Tenth Amendment. This held that only Federal Taxes applied to institutions dealing with the Federal Government.

Along with the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, one of the other parts hardest to reconcile with the Tenth Amendment is the Commerce Clause which gives the federal government power to, “… regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes…”. Over the fight over what is considered commerce has waged as the number of states grew and as the amount of commerce between the states increased. The landmark case of Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) ruled that there was a difference between production and commerce. This ruling made the Child Labor act illegal to enforce on a federal level since the court ruled production as a separate process from commerce.

As the federal government expands there are many states who are resistant to the overreach of the federal government. The important thing to remember in regards to the Tenth Amendment is that although there are a lot of things left to the states, the federal government can oversee a lot based on the Supremacy Clause and the Commerce Clause. The importance of striking a balance between the two was never seen more than in the Civil War which erupted into the most violent conflict in American History.

The idea of an overarching all powerful federal government is not something the founders had in mind when they created the Constitution and it’s important to have that balance so they states can meet their own needs within the bounds of the Constitution and the Federal government merely fills in the holes.


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