America’s founders are associated with the Constitution and the events living up to it. But one founder who was not just an important part of that, but also instrumental to American understanding of the Constitution, is too-little noted — St. George Tucker.
Born this month in 1752, Tucker was a militia colonel in the American Revolution. He attended the 1786 Annapolis Convention that led to the Constitutional Convention, where he opposed adopting the Constitution unless it contained a bill of rights.
However, historian Clyde Wilson noted his primary contribution to posterity was his 1803 “View of the Constitution of the United States,” the first systematic commentary on the post-Bill of Rights Constitution. That the Supreme Court has cited Tucker at least 40 times illustrates his influence.
Tom DiLorenzo summarized Tucker as laying out “the Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution, which was replaced by the centralizing, big government … interpretation after 1865.”
At a time when commitment to limited government is feeble, and the judiciary’s role of preventing government oppression underemployed, his insights into liberty and government under our Constitution merit revisiting:
What can be more absurd than that a person wholly ignorant of the constitution should presume to make laws pursuant thereto?
All men being by nature equal, in respect to their rights, no man nor set of men, can have any natural, or inherent right, to rule over the rest.
Legitimate government can … be derived only from the voluntary grant of the people, and exercised for their benefit.
No people can ever be free, whose government is founded upon the usurpation of their sovereign rights.
If in a limited government the public functionaries exceed the limits which the constitution prescribes to their powers, [it] is…treason against the sovereignty of the people.
A written constitution … [is] a beacon to apprise the people when their rights and liberties are invaded, or in danger.
It is indispensably necessary … that there be a perfect equality of rights among the citizens … every man has a right to use his faculties in an honest way, and the fruits of his labor, thus acquired, are his own.
The rights of property must be sacred.
The object … was not the establishment of a general consolidated government … but a federal government, with powers limited to certain determinate objects.
[Federal] jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects, only … The authority of the federal government … ought therefore to receive the strictest construction.
The present constitution … must be received, respected, and obeyed among us, as the great and unequivocal declaration of the will of the people, and the supreme law of the land.
It ought to be the singular care of the government to draw no further supplies than the exigencies of the public require.
A representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents.
Every power which concerns the right of the citizen, must be construed strictly, where it may operate to infringe or impair his liberty.
The judiciary … is … to whom the protection of the rights of the individual is by the constitution especially confided, interposing its shield between him and the sword of usurped authority.
A law limited to such objects as may be authorized by the constitution, would … be the supreme law of the land; but a law not limited to those objects, or not made pursuant to the constitution, would not be the supreme law of the land, but an act of usurpation, and consequently void.
Acts of congress to be binding, must be made pursuant to the constitution; otherwise they are not laws.
It is the due [external] restraint and not the moderation of rulers that constitutes a state of liberty.
St. George Tucker was a student and a defender of American rights against over-reaching beyond the Constitution. Given that today, federal power has crowded out many Constitutional restraints, we should give Tucker’s understanding as much serious thought as we do others with whom he helped begin and shape our great experiment in liberty.
Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University.