Founders Corner

Jefferson to Madison: Just say no on post roads

todayDecember 15, 2010 2

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Mandeville, LA – It often comes to my attention that most folks think it entirely proper that the Federal Government should design, confiscate the property, then build and maintain millions of miles of Interstate roads and bridges. Many time people use the argument that “well the Constitution does give Congress authority to build post roads.” Actually the Constitution gives Congress the authority to”establish” post roads NOT build them. No one explains this better than Thomas Jefferson and here is one of Jefferson’s writings on the matter.

Letter – Thomas Jefferson to James Madison

6 Mar. 1796

P.S. Have you considered all the consequences of your proposition respecting post roads? I view it as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress & their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a scene of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest. We have thought, hitherto, that the roads of a State could not be so well administered even by the State legislature as by the magistracy of the county, on the spot. What will it be when a member of N H is to mark out a road for Georgia?

Does the power to establish post roads, given you by Congress, mean that you shall make the roads, or only select from those already made, those on which there shall be a post? If the term be equivocal, (& I really do not think it so,) which is the safest construction? That which permits a majority of Congress to go to cutting down mountains & bridging of rivers, or the other, which if too restricted may refer it to the states for amendment, securing still due measure & proportion among us, and providing some means of information to the members of Congress tantamount to that ocular inspection, which, even in our county determinations, the magistrate finds cannot be supplied by any other evidence? The fortification of harbors were liable to great objection. But national circumstances furnished some color. In this case there is none.

The roads of America are the best in the world except those of France & England. But does the state of our population, the extent of our internal commerce, the want of sea & river navigation, call for such expense on roads here, or are our means adequate to it? Think of all this, and a great deal more which your good judgment will suggest, and pardon my freedom.

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