Sunday, April 10, 2016

Constitution Series Part 8: Article I, Section 8, Clauses 6 through 10

Five clauses down, thirteen to go! The next few clauses are fairly straightforward.


Section 8

To recap: so far this section has granted Congress the power to tax citizens, borrow money, regulate commerce, regulate immigration, regulate bankruptcy, coin money, and standardize measurements. Moving on!
[The Congress shall have the Power] To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
Counterfeiting is a major felony in the United States, and for good reason. Counterfeit money devalues our currency as a whole. If the addition of new currency isn't carefully regulated it could have a significant, harmful economic impact.

However, at the time the primary concern wasn't for protecting United States' currency so much as protecting foreign currencies, especially since foreign currencies were (at the time) more reliable than domestic currencies. The convention feared that allowing people to counterfeit foreign money would embarrass the United States, so it was more about foreign relations than economics.
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
As someone who worked in a mailroom and dealt with shipping packages on a daily basis, I have to point out how utterly incredible our postal system is. I don't know if most people realize what a privilege it is to have a federal postal system that's incredibly fast, cheap, and reliable. You can send a 1-pound package First Class across the country for less than $4, and it'll probably reach its destination in three days and arrive without getting stolen or misplaced. If you want to really appreciate this system, look up Canada Post or research the issues inherent in shipping stuff to South America.

While the establishment of post offices met no argument, this clause was somewhat controversial in what it intended to mean by "and post Roads." Did this mean they could build and maintain roads for the postal system? Or did they only designate what roads are used for the post? Thomas Jefferson, who generally stuck to the narrowest definition possible in all Constitutional matters, decided on the latter. It wasn't until the 1830s that opinion turned in favor of allowing Congress the power to build and maintain roads for postal purposes.
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
I can't really find much information on the creation of this clause, which grants Congress the power to regulate copyright and patent law. It seems like this issue wasn't heavily discussed during the convention or in the Federalist Papers. Patent law as an idea had been around for centuries, and the reason for a uniform patent law across the nation is fairly obvious.

In this case, it's the law itself that's more controversial than Congress's right to create such a law. I'm not going to tangent into a discussion about patent trolls here, though. That's a discussion for another time.
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
This clause grants Congress the power to establish federal courts that function beneath the Supreme Court. They got to decide how many there are, how they work together, and many other details about the structure and makeup of federal courts. As such, the structure of the federal courts today is very different than it was in the 1790s.

Again, though, we'll revisit the court system in Article III.
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
While states would retain much of their own ability to define and enforce laws in their territories, the seas would remain under federal jurisdiction. Otherwise, it seems like claims of jurisdiction would be difficult to verify in the open seas.

More confusing is the part about "Offences against the Law of Nations." This is what we call international law these days. In short, this clause gives Congress the right to define international law and punish those who violate it.

Some delegates at the convention were concerned that this clause might come across as arrogant, as if it granted Congress the power to tell other countries what international law should be. However, in practice most international law has been established jointly with other countries through treaties. This became a huge deal in the past century, when globalization really took off.

In short, this clause further establishes Congress's ability to make decisions on an international level.

Continue to Part 9: Article I, Section 8, Clauses 11 to 16

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