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The Tenth Amendment

By Tyler Bauer

This is the tenth of many blog posts that will be taking a deeper look at the various amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as proposed amendments to the United States Constitution which failed. The text of each amendment is taken from constitutionus.com and information on failed amendments is taken from www.lexisnexus.com.

The Tenth Amendment

What it Says

“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.”

What it Means

To put it simply, all powers not given to the federal government by the Constitution are held by the States or the people. If the Constitution doesn’t explicitly give a power to the federal government, then the States or the people have that power.

Why it Matters

The Tenth Amendment matters because it was intended to restrict the power of the federal government while promoting the superiority of the States and the people. As early Americans like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed, the powers of the federal government should be “few and defined.” This is precisely why the Tenth Amendment was included in the Bill of Rights – to prevent a tyrannical federal government and give the States and the people the power to reject a tyrannical federal government.

The Tenth Amendment is often cited whenever one defends states’ rights. For historical reasons, anyone who defends states’ rights is often labeled as a racist or a white supremacists (sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly). Our country once had a National States’ Rights Party, which was an openly racist party that achieved no meaningful success. There was also a States’ Rights Democratic Party, which primarily concerned itself with the federal government’s attempts to progress in civil rights. To be fair to the latter of the two parties, there are legitimate arguments to be made that the federal government did not have any constitutional power to enforce civil rights legislation on the states. That’s not to say the racism is good or civil rights are bad. All I’m saying is that there’s a valid debate to be had regarding exactly what powers the federal government has.

While the Tenth Amendment is often thought of as promoting states’ rights and racism, this isn’t entirely true. Yes, the Tenth Amendment can be and has been used to further racist motives. However, historically speaking, I think it’s pretty clear that the Tenth Amendment has done more good than harm. For example, the Tenth Amendment was frequently used to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Fugitive Slave Act – which was a federal law – required any escaped slaves captured in the North to be returned to their owners in the South. By law, all Northern states and people were required to comply with the law and capture any escaped slaves. Northern states and citizens found a way to legally bypass this requirement – the Tenth Amendment. Thanks to the Tenth Amendment, Northerners were able to successfully argue that the federal government had no right to force states or their citizens to return escaped slaves.

Admittedly, I’m not as well educated on the Tenth Amendment as I should be. However, I know two sources who are. If you’d like to learn more about the Tenth Amendment, I highly recommend checking out Tom Woods’s extensive coverage of the Tenth Amendment, as well as the work of the Tenth Amendment Center.

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