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GENERAL WELFARE

The "General Welfare" Clause.  What Does It Really Mean?

There seems to be some disagreement as to what the word "welfare" means with regard to the phrase "general welfare" as it appears in the Constitution.  Many on FR use the "general welfare" clause as the basis of their support for government schools and Social Security.  I started this thread with the intent to discover the true meaning of the term "welfare" with regard to it's use in the Constitution.  

The word "welfare" appears twice in the Constitution.  Once in the preamble and again in Article 1, Section 8.  

The preamble to the Constitution states:

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.  "

The preamble is not a delegation of power to the federal government.  It is simply a stated purpose.  

Article 1, Section 8 states:

"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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;"

We all know the meaning of words can change over time.  In order to more accurately assess the meaning of the word "welfare", with respect to it's use in the Constitution, I consulted a source from that period.  I happened to own a reprint of the 1828 edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.  Here is how the word "welfare" was defined 40 years after it was written in the Constitution.  

"Generl Welfare" definition from the 1828 version of Noah Webster's Dictionary

A clear distinction is made with respect to welfare as applied to persons and states.  In the Constitution the word "welfare" is used in the context of States and not persons.  The "welfare of the United States" is not congruous with the welfare of individuals, people, or citizens.  

Furthermore, Article 4, Section 4 states:

"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.  "

A Republican form of government is one that is not Democratic.  This means that policy cannot be decided based on majority rule.  It is impossible to guarantee a Republican form of government and, at the same time, compel people to fund and participate in government programs which are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.  

I came across a very interesting letter on FR.  It was written by James Madison in 1817.  Madison is considered by many to be the father of the Constitution.  In it he discusses the proper role of the federal government and the limits placed on it by the Constitution.  

 

Veto of federal public works bill

    March 3, 1817

    To the House of Representatives of the United States: Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled "An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements," and which sets apart and pledges funds "for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense," I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives, in which it originated.  

    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.  

    "The power to regulate commerce among the several States" can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such commerce with a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms strengthened by the known inconveniences which doubtless led to the grant of this remedial power to Congress.  

    To refer the power in question to the clause "to provide for common defense and general welfare" would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper.  Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms "common defense and general welfare" embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.  It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared "that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.  " Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.  

    A restriction of the power "to provide for the common defense and general welfare" to cases which are to be provided for by the expenditure of money would still leave within the legislative power of Congress all the great and most important measures of Government, money being the ordinary and necessary means of carrying them into execution.  

    If a general power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses, with the train of powers incident thereto, be not possessed by Congress, the assent of the States in the mode provided in the bill can not confer the power.  The only cases in which the consent and cession of particular States can extend the power of Congress are those specified and provided for in the Constitution.  

    I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity.  But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.  

    James Madison,
    President of the United States

It appears that, contrary to the claims by many on FR, Congress does not have broad and sweeping powers.  Nor was it the intention of the founders to give Congress any.  

 

Other quotes regarding this issue:

    "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.  " - James Madison, Letter to Edmund Pendleton, January 21, 1792 _Madison_ 1865, I, page 546

    "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.  " - James Madison, regarding an appropriations bill for French refugees, 1794

    "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 creators.  " - James Madison, Letter to James Robertson, April 20, 1831 _Madison_ 1865, IV, pages 171-172

    "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.  " - Thomas Jefferson

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