The longer I am a government teacher, the more I come across people who are either ignorant or misinformed about the history behind our Constitution. They make claims that they know what it means, but they apply modern meanings to defined terms used within the Constitution. The people are at not fault necessarily all the time. Some teacher’s push a political agenda when teaching American History or U.S. Government. Many people have not read any of the founding documents including the constitution itself. I want to clear up the most misunderstood phrase in the Constitution and teach you all the original meaning of this phrase so you will never again misunderstand this part of the Constitution. It is the phrase the general welfare.
The term “general welfare” is twice used in the Constitution. Once in the preamble (promote the general Welfare) and once in the listed powers of the Congress in Article I, Section 8 (The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States…). This term is also sometimes replaced with the public welfare or common good in the discussions, debates, and writings of the Founding Fathers and the people who inspired them, like John Locke, and other ancient or enlightenment philosophers. What is the problem with this phrase?
But what does the term General Welfare mean? The term general welfare connects with the ancient philosophy of classical republicanism. This philosophy encapsulates many things, but for our discussion today it refers to promoting the common good or putting the interests of everyone over the benefits of a select group or a few people.
How did our Founders interpret this phrases? Did they mean the expression would allow the government to expand indefinitely? Let’s find out. Let’s have some quotes from the father of the Constitution, James Madison. What did he think the term meant?
“With respect to the words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creator.”
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.”
“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.”
If you read these quotes accurately, Madison was saying that the general welfare is not giving the government the authority over every area of life, but only those specific powers listed or enumerated in the Constitution. If there is a person out there who think I am wrong about what Madison is saying or means, please let me know.
Secondly, what did the Federalists Papers say about the term general welfare? These documents are written to defend the Constitution from the detractors in the states also do an excellent job of explaining the intent of this term.
It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it… For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars… But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare? (Federalists #41)
Alexander Hamilton had a slightly more liberal view of the term general welfare. He has stated in several occasions that the general welfare clause in the taxing clause of the Constitution gives the government authority over almost anything defined as the general welfare. The argument Hamilton makes is that the general welfare clause gives the government an unquestionable ability to do what it wants as long as it is in the general welfare, suitable for everyone. The problem is that he is the only Founder to seem to have that view. Madison, Jefferson, and the whole of the Federalists Papers disagree with him. He even disagrees with himself sometimes as he was the author of many Federalist Papers as well as with this quote:
The only qualification of the generallity of the Phrase in question, which seems to be admissible, is this–That the object to which an appropriation of money is to be made be General and not local; its operation extending in fact, or by possibility, throughout the Union, and not being confined to a particular spot.
No objection ought to arise to this construction from a supposition that it would imply a power to do whatever else should appear to Congress conducive to the General Welfare. A power to appropriate money with this latitude which is granted too in express terms would not carry a power to do any other thing, not authorised in the constitution, either expressly or by fair implication.
It appears from this quote even Alexander Hamilton was arguing that the general welfare phrase only applies to the powers authorized to Congress in the Constitution. Again we see the founders had a clear view of this phrase even when they seem to contradict themselves.
This argument repeated numerous times by the Federalists at the ratifying conventions is that the powers of the government have limits by those specific powers and authority granted in the Constitution. Federalists delegates in the states made the argument again and again that anything that is not directly or expressly granted to the federal government belongs to the states, which are all-powerful over their citizens.
But what do other founders have to say about the general welfare? Maybe there is some contradiction between the about this ambiguous phrase. Let’s take a look at what Thomas Jefferson said. For the record, he was not even at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 because he was an ambassador to France during that time.
Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.
They are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. To consider the latter phrase not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please which may be good for the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless. It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please…. Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them. It was intended to lace them up straightly within the enumerated powers and those without which, as means, these powers could not be carried into effect.
That of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.
The people who say we don’t know what the Founders meant about any particular phrase in the Constitution are just plain wrong, because they fail to do their research about the matter. Originalism does not say that we need to follow the Founder’s intent or views blindly. But how can we say we know what the constitution means if we do not consult what they said about the constitution when it was written, ratified and begun. These words are not expected to be followed blindly but as a reference to what they meant when they wrote it. Should this not be consulted when trying to interpret the document? And if the modern interpretation is in direct contrast with the intent, we must give pause before increase its meaning. Do we not study the context of Plato and Aristotle before interpreting them for our times? Do not good Biblical scholars do the same with passages in the Bible? So why do people avoid doing the research when it comes to an understanding the very document that was built to guide our government, list its powers and oversee its processes? Is it out of their ignorance, laziness or a political agenda? You will have to decide that for yourselves.
One more point about this clearly defined phrase. We can all agree that the general welfare includes the public education of our children, protecting the environment, and other good causes can fall within this phrase. But when it comes to the term in our Constitution, it is not giving the Congress authority over all those areas. The Founders made it clear that the general welfare was only referring to specifically enumerated powers granted within the Constitution, as both Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and the Federalist Papers stated. All those powers that people claim the general welfare encompasses (education, helping the poor, the environment, business regulations, etc.) should fall on the state or local government, or the power and authority belong to the people themselves to decide.
As always I welcome any questions, comments or divergent viewpoints. Sorry for the break from my book summary of Glenn Beck’s “Broke,” but I felt that this topic desperately needed to be addressed given the discussions I have had recently and in the past.