Just what are the Constitutional limits on federal ownership of land? Are they defined in the Constitution, federal law, or both?
Many Americans, including politicians in our government, are under the distinct impression that our Federal Government can use eminent domain to lay claim to whatever land and natural resources they see fit. After all, the federal government runs the country, right?
Wrong. That is not what the Constitution says. In fact, it says something
We the People run our country. In fact, our Constitution, “the supreme Law of the Land” (Article VI), says so in its opening words, the Preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a m
ore perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Each and every U.S. citizen is one of “We the People.” We the People run our country, hence the name of this website. This fact is thoroughly woven throughout our Constitution and its Amendments, particularly the first ten Amendments we know as the Bill of Rights, and for very good reason.
Before our Constitution was signed 1787, and even before our Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier in 1776, certain factions in our government wanted to create a strong, authoritarian government. The problem is that such a government was reminiscent of the Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed, knowing full well that such governments strongly tend to creep towards dictatorship. They also rejected democracy, a democratic form of government, knowing full well that when Rome allowed itself to be transformed from a republic into a democracy, its end soon followed, eventually collapsing under its own excesses.
A republic is defined as a government under the rule of law. Because it’s principles are well-defined and codified, it tends to be far more stable than a democracy, whose principles can be changed by a single vote. Thus, a republic works quite well. Democracies, however, are not stable, as they’re determined by the will of the people. When those people have either been deceived or have merely grown ignorant, the democracy is easily weakened, making it ripe for being overrun by another country, or worse, being rendering so dysfunctional that it collapses under the weight of its own excesses, inefficiencies, and corruption. Sadly, the United States under Democrat control reflects this tendency and has become a clear and present danger to our nation, as clearly evidenced not only by our current and exorbitant level of debt, but also by the abject failure of most cities run by strongly Democrat governments.
Because our Founding Fathers were such keen students of history, knowing full well what works and what doesn’t, when these factions attempted to create a strong central government whereby states ceded most, if not all of their rights, the calmer heads crafted, “by the Unanimous Consent of the States present,” a “Constitution for the United States of America” that specifically required ratification “by three-fourths of the several states,” the same as for all Amendments (Article V). Rhode Island, distrustful of a powerful federal government, was the only one of the thirteen original states to refuse to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Thus, with only twelve states present, three-quarters of which equal nine, they including the following Article VII’s opening clause: “The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.”
Furthermore, our “country” isn’t like France, Japan, or Egypt. By law, specifically our U.S. Constitution, the United States of America is a collection of independent states (countries) organized into a union. The term “state” and “country” are synonymous, hence the universal terms “heads of state” and our “State Department,” both of which deal with other countries. In fact, the word “country” is not found anywhere in our Constitution, whereas the word “state” is found 133 times.”
Much like the European Union, each U.S. state remains its own sovereign entity, have ceded only certain specific and quite limited powers to the union as a whole, under the federal government, in order to normalize activities and relations between the states, which to this day retained the vast majority of powers under each state government.
Specifically, the federal government exists solely for the purposes as given in the Preamble.
If the federal government were allowed to change its powers merely by passing a single bill, especially in a way that modified the limits established by our Constitution, then such an action would not only be inconsistent with our Constitution, but would disenfranchise our voters. Fortunately, that’s not how our government works, or at least is supposed to work.
So… Where does that leave us with respect to the federal ownership of land?
Article I, Section 8 gives Congress many powers. However, when it comes to the purchasing and ownership of land, it limits the federal government’s powers quite specifically:
“To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings…”
- Congress may exercise exclusive legislation over the District.
- The District is not to exceed exceed ten miles square.
- The District is to be formed by land ceded by particular states, as accepted by Congress, to become the seat of the U.S. government
- If Congress needs additional land, it may purchase places by the consent of the legislature of the state from which they’re being purchased
- The only reasons Congress may purchase such lands are for the erection of forts (Army bases), magazines (place where ammunition is stored), arsenals (place where firearms are stored), dock-yards (places where ships are stored aka “ports”), “and other needful buildings.”
NOTE: The entire collection of Constitutionally-authorized Congressional purchases is limited to buildings and structures.
These limitations gave rise to the easy to remember moniker, “forts, ports, and ten miles square.”
While it is reasonable to extend this to Air Force bases and large ranges used for firing, bombing, and testing, Congress does not have any Constitutional authorization to buy land used for other purposes, particularly vast quantities of land as they own out west. Furthermore, they have absolutely zero lawful authority (power) to “appropriate” (take without buying) land, as the Constitution specifically requires Congress to obtain land only if “purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be.”
Some people will argue that the next clause gives the federal government to expand their powers as they see fit, that doing so is in the best interests of our nation. Again, WRONG. Nor does the federal government have any authority to erode our rights. The two Amendments which guarantee both of these precepts are found at the end of the Bill of Rights as stop-gap final limits on federal powers:
Amendment IX: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
In modern parlance, just because a right isn’t mentioned in the Constitution doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate right. Furthermore, no one – not Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, nor any business, organization, entity, man, woman, or child can lawfully either deny us those rights nor even “disparage” our retention of those rights. Disparage means “to describe (someone or something) as unimportant, weak, bad; to degrade; to lower in rank or reputation; speak slightingly about.” These are the rights of We the People! They’d better not attempt to degrade them.
Amendment X: “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.”
Again, in today’s language, this simply means that all powers not specifically given to the federal government are not to be held by the federal government. Unless the Constitution specifically prohibits the states holding a specific power, such as negotiating international treaties, then that power belong to the states (NOT the feds), or the people.
Put simply, the Federal Government of the United States of America has vastly overreached the Constitutional limits of their authority. NO land is legitimately “their land” except the buildings and structures required for forts and ports, and the ten miles square required for the seat of the U.S. government. All other lands in these United States belong to the States or to the People. Sometime long ago federal politicians convinced themselves that it was OK to flagrantly ignore, if not extremely violate the U.S. Constitution, and for some unfathomable reason, the American People weren’t paying attention!
Well, people of America, you’d better start paying attention now, and remind each and every member of Congress — often, as in at least once weekly — that We the People are watching, and that those who fail or refuse to do their duty, irregardless of willfulness or ignorance, to FULLY “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” most certainly WILL be ejected from office with extreme prejudice, and replaced by one of us who actually knows and follows the United States Constitution.