In his “Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government,” English philosopher John Locke writes that establishing the legislative power is the “first and fundamental positive law of all Commonwealths.” In keeping with Locke’s proposition, the framers debated the powers that should be given to Congress at the Federal Convention and during ratification debates over the Constitution. The enumerated powers of the Constitution are those powers expressly given to Congress. They range from seemingly mundane legislative procedures to more controversial issues about compensation of the members and authority to enact laws for taxing, spending, and national defense. This module explains the purpose and debate over each of the enumerated powers found in Article I of the Constitution. In the next module we will consider implied powers and limits on Congress’ power.
The main issue here is how much power the national legislature should have to enact laws that could potentially bind the states.
Since this module goes into some detail about specific sections and clauses of Article I, we should begin by recognizing the “big picture.” The main issue here is how much power the national legislature should have to enact laws that could potentially bind the states. Since the Congress under the Constitution would have much greater capacity to enact laws than the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the enumerated powers were a good indicator of the potential reach of the national government. As the delegates worked through committee proposals, amendments, and compromises, they considered examples from the British parliament and state legislatures; debated issues from the standpoint of their experiences, observations, and thinking about governance; and expressed the interests of their respective states. Many of the enumerated powers were introduced by Madison at the convention and, with a few important exceptions, they were incorporated into the Constitution with minimal dissent. The powers were a source of more vigorous debate between the Federalist and Antifederalists during ratification.