Original Intent: The General Welfare


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 clearly defined terms used with in the Constitution. This is not necessarily their fault all the times. 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 actually mean? The term general welfare is often connected with the ancient philosophy of classic 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 interests of a select group or a few people.

How did our Founders interpret this phrases? Did they mean the phrase 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 these quotes are read 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 written to defend the Constitution from the detractors in the states also do a good 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 he seems to make is that the general welfare clause gives the government unquestionable ability to do what it wants as long as it is in the general welfare, good 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 authorize 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 the powers of the government are limited 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 questionable 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. The argument should never be made 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 meant 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 understanding the very document that was built to guide our government, list its powers and guide its processes? Is it out of their own 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 general 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 belongs to the people themselves to decide.

As always I welcome any questions, comments or divergent view points. 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.

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12 thoughts on “Original Intent: The General Welfare

  1. Pingback: Constitution of the United States – Preamble: promote general Welfare « ZeraLand, USA

  2. Great essay, you made parts of the Federalist Papers understandable for me. Thanks. I found this blog while trying to figure out when the term “welfare” started to be used for government assistance programs, who propagated it and why. I wonder if one day we may have an “educated” population who believes that the general welfare clause was referring to aid and assistance programs provided at the federal level.

    • Did you mean to say that “we may have an ‘educated’ population who DOES NOT believe that the general welfare clause was referring to aid and assistance programs…?” That seems more in line with your previous comments.

      General welfare, common/public good are all the same term and just refer specifically that laws are written for the whole benefit of society, not just one group of people. Unfortunately that rarely happens anymore. Laws create special classes of citizens who do or do not get the benefits created by the laws passed by Congress. A lot of times a special exception is cut out of a law, especially earmarked appropriations, so specific that only one person or group can use it even if it can technically be used by many people.

      Thanks for reading. I hope you signed up to be a subscriber. I don’t update much now, due to family, school and work commitments, but it is something I hope to come back to in the future. Have a great day.

  3. Pingback: The General Welfare and the Vaccinations | The Government Teacher

  4. I hope that you take the following points with you into your next government class to allow your students the opportunity to think for themselves.

    1. Washington and Adams specifically, but others as well, would disagree with your assertion that Hamilton was the only founder who believed in Hamilton’s version of general welfare. Both Washington and Adams, and the party that formed around them, sided with Hamilton’s view of general welfare. That’s two presidential administrations and congresses worth of Hamiltonian policies, followed by a heated election and a few key deaths before the Madison/Jefferson version became the most prominent. People tend to forget that, while Hamilton was the only author of the Federal Papers who held his views, that he was not alone. People also tend to put more emphasis on Madison and Jefferson, and that is wrong. They petitioned for ratification, but it was their own private positions that drove them to keep Hamilton’s version of general welfare out of their petitions, and that does not change the fact that the Constitution was ratified as written, or the fact that Madison and Jefferson were not the only ones who were involved in the writing, or the fact that Hamilton was not in fact the only founder who held his views.

    2. The notion that the the tax clause (“common defense” “general welfare”) is limited to the other enumerated powers is a logical impossibility. The easiest way to understand that is by following these logical bread crumbs.

    A. If Congress is expressly limited to those powers listed in Article 1 Section 8, then all Congressional powers must be listed in Article 1 Section 8. They are not.
    B. If all Congressional powers are not listed in Article 1 Section 8, then Congress must be limited to those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution as a whole.
    C. If all Congress is limited to those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution as a whole, then the Constitution must specifically enumerate all Congressional powers. They do not.
    D. If all Congressional powers were specifically listed in the Constitution, there would be no need for the following prohibition enumerated in Article 1 Section 9, “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed,” because that prohibition would have been implied by its absence among the specifically enumerated powers.
    E. Since that prohibited power was added to Article 1 Section 9, we now know that Congress either has powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, or that Congress has powers reasonably implied by clauses contained within the Constitution.
    F. Since Congress is only limited by proof of reasonable implication, there must be some other limit in place. There is. It’s called representative democracy.

    If all of that is true, then perhaps the enumerated powers within Article 1 Section 8 are limited to themselves? Perhaps the other enumerated powers were written to limit and/or modify the tax clause in which common defense and general welfare are ? No… And even if it were true, the limits are only being placed on taxation. Here are the logical bread crumbs…

    A. If the clauses in Article 1 Section 8 are codependent, they would all be written in the same context. They are not.
    B. Since the clauses in Article 1 Section 8 are not codependent, they are independent clauses that can only be limited or modified by themselves, or by the rules put in place by the Constitution as a whole.
    C. If the enumerated powers written after the tax clause, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;” were meant to modify or limit the tax clause, then they would all deal specifically with taxation. They do not.

    The clauses in Article 1 Section 8 are independent clauses, however linked they may appear. They can only be limited by the Constitution as a whole, they cannot limit or eliminate one another unless there is a rule created that outlines that interaction.

    And the Tenth Amendment will not help you either. The Tenth Amendment limits the United States Government to those powers contained in the Constitution, and general welfare as a purpose is contained within the Constitution…..twice. And let’s not forget that the Tenth Amendment contains the words, “or to the people,” who also vote in federal elections and petition for federal laws as needed.

    The hard truth that most Americans refuse to accept is that power in the Constitution is incoherently articulated, probably because it is impractical to outline it in the overwhelming detail that would be required. The only people who disagree with that statement are those who have an agenda they refuse to give up on, or those who lack the logical faculties to catch the contradictions. As long as power is incoherently articulated, then general statements of purpose like “common defense” and “general welfare” are exactly the band-aids we need. As long as that is true, Hamilton’s version is the only one that makes sense. As long as that is true, it will have to be worked out democratically. Thankfully, the founders did outline our democratic system fairly coherently. Now we just have to learn to accept democratic outcomes and not pitch inaccurate propaganda to K-16 students in order to achieve the outcomes we desire.

    • Great rebuttal! I especially like this phrase “Now we just have to learn to accept democratic outcomes and not pitch inaccurate propaganda” so true so true

    • I do fully intend to respond to this lengthy rebuttal of my perspective, I am just trying to get my research in order and craft it appropriately. Plus life usually gets in the way.

    • May I “steal” this? Very well written and thought out. I would also add, the men who wrote the Federalist Papers were not democratically elected, neither were the men who constructed the Constitution. Let’s also add that Jefferson suggested the Constitution be rewritten every 19 years because he believed this document to be a living one. “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”- Thomas Jefferson. I don’t understand why so many people object to this clause. Why is it so terrible to spend taxes on programs that benefit us all. As of late, I’ve never heard so many selfish people. My thoughts are, I’m grateful to our founders and what they accomplished, but in their time, the late 1700’s, there is no possibility they could have envisioned life here in the America they created. we need to learn how to govern ourselves with fresher, new ideas. The only way to move forward, to progress if we look toward the future for answers and stop relying on elitist men, who took it upon themselves to determine a future they had no idea would turn out the way it has. Just my thoughts.

  5. In response to fede, I appreciate your thoughtful. comments. You are obviously someone who is concerned about others. Here are just a couple of thoughts to consider: If an activity, such as spending money to help others, is not in the enumerated powers of the Federal Government, that doesn’t mean those things can’t or shouldn’t be done. It means they should be done at a level other than the National level. For example, charity is best done at the local level where the needs can be better assessed and the costs better controlled. Also, the Constitution was not intended to provide a solution to every problem. It couldn’t do that even when it was written. It does, however, recognize the weaknesses of human nature, which are ever present, and provides safeguards against them. At the same time it provides an atmosphere of freedom so that individual initiative can flourish.

  6. Your narrative stops short of noting the only legally binding opinion on the framers’ intent, which is that of the Supreme Court of the US.

    While it’s not wrong what Madison is saying or likely intended, the SCOTUS (a conservative leaning court at the time) disagreed quite plainly and directly and wrote, “The clause confers a power separate and distinct from those later enumerated[,] is not restricted in meaning by the grant of them, and Congress consequently has a substantive power to tax and to appropriate, limited only by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States. … It results that the power of Congress to authorize expenditure of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by the direct grants of legislative power found in the Constitution.” US vs. Butler (1936)

    The rule of law as established by our system (including the Judiciary’s highest court to settle these matters) says that interpreting the general welfare clause narrowly and constrained by specific constitutionally granted congressional powers is simply not the law of the United States as of 1936 (and it’s been tested several times since and repeatedly affirmed since).

    • Thanks for your comment on current Supreme Court interpretations of the general welfare clause. The point of the article is to explore how the founders intended the Constitution to be read. It is my view that this perspective should at least be understood before we attempt to interpret that constitution for ourselves. That does not mean the interpretation cannot change over time, but I do believe some deference should be given to those who wrote it so we don’t make the Constitution or its powers into something it was never intended to be. Like giving the power to Congress to do whatever it wants under the auspices of the General Welfare clause. Also, the court can be wrong in its interpretation of the Constitution. How many of us would disagree with the decision of court in the cases of Dred Scott, Plessy, Korematsu, or any other political charged case.

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