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James Madison and Federal Power

This month’s Presidents and the Constitution focuses on James Madison, “Father of the Constitution” and fourth President of the United States. Madison, who had urged that Congress be given power to build roads and canals at the Constitutional Convention, vetoed a bill providing for the building of roads and canals. With this act, Madison demonstrated a strict interpretation of the Constitution’s enumeration of Congress’s powers by vetoing the “Bonus Bill” in his last official act as President in March of 1817.


At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison and other delegates proposed that Congress be given the power to grant charters of incorporation for the construction of canals in order to promote transportation and commerce among the states. Several other delegates objected, and the proposal failed. By 1815, Madison’s second term as President was winding down, and the nation had grown rapidly. The U.S. spanned from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Maine to Georgia. Communication, transportation, and commerce across this territory were challenging and, in some areas, almost nonexistent. It was clear that without significant improvements in the nation’s infrastructure, such as roads and canals, the commercial and agricultural development of the new nation could be crippled.

Madison believed that new roads and canals were essential. But he also believed it would be necessary to amend the Constitution in order to give Congress the authority to build them. Madison urged that Congress propose a constitutional amendment that would authorize the federal government to begin building national roads and canals. Congress did not address the constitutional issue. Instead, lawmakers drafted a bill that would apply profits from the National Bank toward the building of roads and canals. In his last official act as President, Madison vetoed this “Bonus Bill,” as it was called. He explained that “The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation with the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.”

Madison noted that neither the power to regulate commerce; nor to provide for the common defense; nor to promote the general welfare could be understood to grant Congress the power to construct roads and canals. Because of his conviction that the powers of the federal government must be limited to those enumerated by the Constitution, President Madison used the veto power to prevent the Congress from carrying out a goal that he himself had advocated thirty years earlier.


1. At the Constitutional Convention, why did Madison want to specifically add the power to build roads and canals to Congress’ enumerated powers?

2. Why were improvements in roads and canals necessary by 1815?

3. What did Madison ask Congress to do about the nation’s need for roads and canals?

4. Why did Madison veto a bill whose cause he had advocated for 30 years?

5. Do you think Madison was right to veto the “Bonus Bill”? Why or why not?


Use recent news articles, like the Bill of Rights Institute’s Teaching with Current Events, to illustrate similarities and differences between Madison’s approach to the powers of the federal government and current approaches to its powers. How are terms such as “earmarks,” “pork‐barrel projects,” and “logrolling” are related to these current controversies?