Friday, April 8, 2016

Constitution Series Part 7: Article I, Section 8, Clauses 4 and 5


Section 8

As a reminder, we're going through the powers being explicitly granted to Congress. We've already gone through the first three, so we're starting with the fourth clause in this section.
[The Congress shall have Power] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
Well, these seem like fairly unrelated powers. Why were they listed together?

First, Congress is granted the power to define the rules for immigration and what is required to become a citizen of the United States. This was a big deal to the colonists because apparently the king made it a point to obstruct immigration into the colonies. In fact, this issue was specifically brought up in the Declaration of Independence in the laundry list of grievances:

"[King George III] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."

Immigration was vital to the growth of the colonies. After all, there was all this land and nobody (except Indians, I suppose) to populate it.

Given this power, Congress has changed the requirements for citizenship every now and then through the years. Some common requirements that remained true for most that time include living here for at least five years, being "of good moral character," swearing to uphold the Constitution, and renouncing any hereditary titles.

Congress's dominion over bankruptcy law is important since it allowed them to create a uniform understanding between borrowers and their debtors. Before, it wasn't really clear how your debt would be handled from state to state.

Like immigration law, bankruptcy law has changed a lot through the years. Still, it's uniform across the country, which is important.
To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
Here, Congress establishes its power to mint currency. This is not a big deal, though, since the government was likewise able to print money under the Articles of Confederation. We'll come back to this in Section 10.

The power to regulate the value of foreign coins, however, was a new power they didn't have under the Articles. Still, this power wasn't terribly contested, either.

What was contested is the ability of the government to print paper money. After all, the value of a coin isn't based on promises; it's based on the value of the precious metals used to mint that coin. After all, the government under the Articles printed out paper money like crazy in an attempt to fund the Revolutionary War, and that practice led to rampant inflation and, basically, the utter devaluation of the Continental (the national currency).

The Constitutional Convention was clearly against the idea of paper money because of its abuse by both the federal and state governments prior to the Constitution. The fact that they specifically say Congress can coin money was no accident.

However, for the purposes of convenience and a realistic understanding of the limitations inherent in only allowing coins of precious metal to be used as currency, attempts to move to paper money cropped up every now and then through the years. Green paper money was printed during the Civil War, which was the first time these "bills of credit" were specifically to be used as legal tender "for all debt, public and private," according to the Legal Tender Act of 1862. The issue of the legality of paper money was finally settled in a series of Supreme Court rulings in the late 19th century, called "The Legal Tender Cases." Even then, the value of paper money was still tied to the value of gold in some way until President Richard Nixon ended this practice in 1971.

Finally, in a clause that has never once generated any controversy, neither being challenged nor enforced, Congress has the power to standardize weights and measures. Literally, they're allowed to determine what, exactly a pound is and what, exactly, an inch is, for instance. Exercising this power to change existing conventions would only result in confusion, though, so Congress hasn't done so.

That said, it was worth noting in the Constitution that this was a power granted to Congress, since it was historically a power exclusive to the Crown. It's to Congress's credit that, unlike the Crown, they never felt the need to poke their nose into defining weight and measures.

Continue to Part 8: Article I, Section 8, Clauses 6 to 10

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