10/14/2005

Daily Kos: Originalism: Is paper money unconstitutional?

Originalism: Is paper money unconstitutional?
by maha

.. the unworkability of rigid originalism struck home to me a few weeks ago as I was reading a book about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War--

Chase regularly came to Lincoln and moaned about the spiraling costs of the war and the increasing difficulty of borrowing Wall Street money to pay for [it] David Taylor, told Lincoln there was a way for the government to raise huge amounts of money: by issuing interest-bearing notes, which could circulate as currency or be kept as an investment.

Lincoln grasped hold of this idea with an enthusiasm fueled partly by desperation. Chase told him Taylor's plan was impossible, the Constitution did not allow the government to issue a paper currency. [Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln's War (Random House, 2004), pp. 201-202]

I checked. Article I, Section 8, Clause 5, says Congress can coin money. It doesn't say Congress can print money. That's right, folks. Y'know those green paper things you carry around in your wallet? They're unconstitutional.

Apparently Chase's opinion was not some off-the-wall interpretation from one guy. The text goes on to say that Lincoln agreed printing money was unconstitutional, but he did it anyway. And soon everybody was spending "greenbacks" just like coins.

The money thing is not the only little surprise lurking in a very strict interpretation of the text. The Framers had serious heebie-jeebies about maintaining a standing army, for example, and down in Article I, Section 8, Clause 12 wrote that Congress had the power to "raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years." Needless to say, this provision has been interpreted quite loosely also.

Bottom line: If we woke up tomorrow to find the originalists in charge, the whole dadblamed nation would come to a screeching halt, and we'd spend the next several years working through the Constitution and passing amendments thereto before we could get the critter up and moving again.

The genius of the Constitution is that it gave us a working structure for governance that has lasted these many years. But within that structure We, the People have felt free to expand the role of government as needed to meet changing realities and to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty," etc.

Daily Kos: Originalism: Is paper money unconstitutional?

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