Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on January 19, 2014

in History, Hubris and humility, Law, War

… is from page 23 of a 1914 edition of The Speeches and Orations of Daniel Webster; this quotation is from Webster’s 1818 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1818) (popularly known as “the Dartmouth College case”); Webster was then attorney for the trustees of Dartmouth College who, in an attempt that fortunately proved successful, sued under the U.S. Constitution’s Contract Clause to prevent the government of New Hampshire from nullifying the College’s private charter and turning the College into a government outfit (emphasis added):

But this argument from necessity [which the state government raised as part of its rationale for taking over Dartmouth College] would equally apply in other cases.  If it be well founded, it would prove, that, whenever any inconvenience or evil is experienced from the restrictions imposed on the legislature by the Constitution, these restrictions ought to be disregarded.  It is enough to say, that the people have thought otherwise.  They have, most wisely, chosen to take the risk of occasional inconvenience from the want of power, in order that there might be a settled limit to its exercise, and a permanent security against its abuse.

Of course, Webster’s wise warning against the supposed virtues and usefulness of pragmatic creations or extensions of legislative power applies not only to legislatures, but to all branches of government.  And it applies also not only to government overreach that violates contracts; it applies far more generally – including, more importantly, to government’s often-asserted ‘need’ to engage in all manner of activities aimed at protecting national security.

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