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What Happened to the Tenth Amendment?

Updated on September 10, 2009

How the federal government has usurped power from the states

When considering the degree to which the federal government has usurped power from the states and the people over the past 100 years we would do well to focus on the tenth amendment. The placement of this forgotten passage at the end of the Bill of Rights might be the reason that rendered it ineffective. What is sure is that the federal government, flaunting the amendment, increasingly began to slip its slender fingers into the affairs of the states and people. This is tragic because its intent was clearly to limit centralized power by focusing directly on the nature of federalism; i.e. the sharing of power between state and federal governments.

What the tenth amendment says

While some are familiar with the meaning or importance of many of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights, very few can claim such knowledge of the tenth. If citizens had been familiar with it, there would probably have been more vociferous objections to its infringement, as always happens when first amendment rights are assaulted. The tenth amendment reads “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Now, to my mind that sentence is clear and unambiguous. It basically states that the federal government has been given specific and enumerated powers, those powers are named in the Constitution, and all other powers remain the sole purvey of the states or the people.

How the power shifted

So, why has the federal government been illegally exercising authority that it wasn’t granted? The simplest answer is that the states and people have been too complacent and passive during the past century, allowing the federal government to take this mantle of authority from them. A more accurate answer comes from the first Article of the Constitution, wherein lies the infamous “interstate commerce” clause. This clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce between the states. It’s a very vague but all encompassing tenet that has provided the proverbial “loophole” or gateway through which the federal government has exacted its tyranny upon the states and the people.

The states lost the battle

This gateway became a floodgate in the 1930’s when the Supreme Court finally threw up its hands and silenced their objections to the New Deal programs of the President and Congress. These decidedly unconstitutional laws were intended to rescue the country from the Great Depression, but whether they were successful is debatable. It is true that the Great Depression called for forceful action from the federal government. It must also be noted that the world has become a smaller place, resulting in more commerce conducted on a global scale, which in turn has required more regulation by Congress. But, the increased application of this federal regulation has not matched these changes proportionally; it has instead advanced far beyond all fair and reasonable measures.

Being last often means being forgotten or overlooked and it seems that the tenth amendment was destined to this fate. Yet, this is ironic, because its “catch-all” purpose within the Bill of Rights required it to be just that: the last.


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    • profile image 7 years ago from upstate, NY

      Great Hub on a vitally important issue! The tenth amendment is the centerpiece of The Bill of Rights. It provides the framework for our federalist system which safeguards constitutional separation of powers and a limited government. The tenth amendment restates that America has a government of limited powers charged with protecting the people's inalienable rights. As you mentioned, there has been a dangerous shift of power from the states to the federal government since the 1930's. This is a problem in that in makes government less efficient and accountable to the people and creates an unconstitutional consolidation of power.

    • lemarquis72 profile image

      lemarquis72 8 years ago

      Hey, you're on to something there realityknocks. That trend seems to be more than just coincidental. These busy-body politicians get into office and think they 'have to' tinker around and mess with things. I'm of Barry Goldwater's opinion: statesmen should DIVEST themselves of power as much as possible, not INVEST themselves with it.

    • profile image

      realityknocks 8 years ago

      Is it possible that this gradual usurpation corresponds directly with the trend of politicians holding office for longer and longer consecutive terms and the increase in quid pro quo awards to lobbyists?

    • lemarquis72 profile image

      lemarquis72 8 years ago

      Well said! It's happened slowly over time and in a seemingly innocuous way.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 8 years ago from Chicago

      You are absolutely right!  The states are supposed to be the power players in this Federation.  Lincoln, TR, and Woodrow all played a hand in the gradual weakening but that FDR and then LBJ—reduced the states to beggars at the federal trough.  We would have a much better country if state's rights were according to the 10th Amendment and more peaceful, and less polarized, too, because anybody that wanted to kill babies and marry gays and ban God and refuse the protection of our military, could do so and patriots could choose to live in states that reflected the values that made America the greatest nation in the history of earth.