The General Welfare Clause: Its Not About Money
“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…” -Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution
From this clause, many have construed the “general Welfare” statement to grant practically unlimited power to Congress to collect and spend the taxpayers’ money on whatever cause Congress may invent for the “good” of the government or the people. Is that what the designers of our Constitution intended when they penned those words “general Welfare?”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and 4th President, suggests that the meaning of the “general Welfare” clause is the exact opposite.
According to the father of the Constitution, the powers delegated to the central government “are few and defined and those that remain in the States are numerous and indefinite.” -Federalist #45
Madison also explained that those powers are “reserved to external objects” of “war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.” He also stated that the central government’s power to tax is intended to be limited to those powers. Federalist #45
Madison clarified the meaning of this often abused “clause” in 1792 during the Cod Fishery Bill debate. Specifically, that the General Welfare clause is not a delegated power of its own but a description of the purpose of the limited and enumerated powers described in Federalist 45.
The General Welfare clause, he explains, was added to describe the purpose of the limited powers being delegated to the central government, for example, so the central government could use those powers for the “general Welfare” of the union, rather than for the benefit of one State over the other. This debate makes it crystal clear, that this is not a blanket power to “do anything you can think of” to promote the so-called general welfare. It is, in fact, a limitation to direct that the power is wielded equitably.
In this debate, Madison warns of the consequences of interpreting this clause as a general boilerplate power, rather than a description of the intent that the limited powers be used to the general benefit of the entire union. He says if the general welfare clause takes is erroneously given such a broad meaning then we will have a govt that is far more expansive than what the Constitution authorizes:
“…for if the clause in question really authorizes Congress to do whatever they think fit, provided it be for the general welfare, of which they are to judge, and money can be applied to it, Congress must have power to create and support a judiciary establishment, with a jurisdiction extending to all cases favorable, in their opinion, to the general welfare, in the same manner as they have power to pass laws, and apply money providing in any other way for the general welfare….
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 for 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; for every object I have mentioned would admit of the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.” James Madison, On The Cod Fishery Bill, Granting Bounties, 1792
It is relevant to note in this discussion that Madison is remarking that it would be an unconstitutional expansion of power for the central government to involve itself in areas such as education, roads, social welfare, and law enforcement. He is speaking to his colleagues in extremes to show his point that interpreting the clauses in this way would result in an unlimited central government, a notion that would have been highly offensive to the men involved in this debate. And had they not been convinced that the central govt was barred by the Constitution form intruding into these areas, they would have never ratified the Constitution.
So according to the Father of the Constitution, the General Welfare clause does not give power or permission for federal involvement in the internal affairs of the States. And to the contrary, once we see the adoption an erroneously expansive interpretation of the general Welfare clause, and see federal involvement in our schools, local governments, roads, and every minute affair of our lives, we will know we have an absurdly out of control federal government.
As Madison himself said, “I venture to declare it as my opinion, that, 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; and what inferences might be drawn, or what consequences ensue, from such a step, it is incumbent on us all to consider.”
Because we have turned Constitutional interpretation over to the musings of those in power, we have allowed those entrusted with the preservation of the Constitution to “transmute” into something other than a Constitutional Republic. In an arrogance magnified by ignorance, the political elite has decided that the wisdom sown into our founding documents and expressed in the profuse writings of its framers does not need to be consulted.
The fact is, this wisdom is tied to over 700 years of lessons in history and 5 foundational Liberty Charters, not to mention the political philosophers and writers that the designers of our Constitution diligently consulted. The question is, where is such negligence leading us? What kind of government are we allowing? Into what have we been transmuted? And as James Madison asked, “What consequences might ensue?”
KrisAnne Hall is an attorney, former prosecutor, a disabled Army veteran, a Russian linguist, a mother, a pastor’s wife and a patriot. Hall hosts weekly radio and TV programs and teaches an average of 265 classes each year on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Learn more at krisannehall.com.
The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. CSG is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in applied civics. The authors include administrative staff, selected students, and guest columnists. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. Contact them at CenterForSelfGovernance.com