The history of the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides an insightful look into the fears and concerns shared by the founders of this nation. In the Federalist/Anti-Federalist duel over the nature of the proposed federal government and the Constitution’s ability to both empower and restrain it, some individuals proved more prescient than others in warning about the creature exceeding the powers of its creators and continually assuming new authority.
It was hoped that the plain language of the last amendment in the Bill of Rights would clearly affirm the fidelity with which officials must adhere to the Constitution. Its language is succinct and its meaning clear: any powers not delegated to the federal government are denied it, and thus reserved to the states and to the people.
Interestingly, this amendment has become commonly referred to as a “truism”—a statement which is obviously true, and which provides no new insight or meaning. Examples of truisms are “where there is smoke, there is fire”, “torture is barbaric”, and “abuse of power comes as no surprise”. The Supreme Court stated in 1931, in United States v. Sprague, that the tenth amendment “added nothing to the [Constitution] as originally ratified.” A decade later, they similarly wrote:
The amendment states but a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered. There is nothing in the history of its adoption to suggest that it was more than declaratory of the relationship between the national and state governments as it had been established by the Constitution before the amendment or that its purpose was other than to allay fears that the new national government might seek to exercise powers not granted, and that the states might not be able to exercise fully their reserved powers…
If the denial to the federal government of any undelegated power is indeed a truism, then why has that entity repeatedly exercised authority for powers it was never given by the states? It is because the tenth amendment is a false truism: a statement to which many give lip service, but in which few truly believe. In short, it is not true. History, of course, bears out the reality that it indeed is untrue, despite its plain language and generally understood implications. It should be true, and ideally would indeed be little more than an unnecessary truism.
Ignored though it may be, the tenth amendment provides advocates of limited government and state sovereignty a fulcrum upon which to hinge their efforts. We can and should work to make this amendment a truism in fact—a statement that is largely unnecessary, because internal and external restraints force the federal government to operate only within the powers delegated in the Constitution.