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Education, The Constitution

The Original Intent of the “General Welfare” Clause

The United States Constitution

The United States
Constitution

There are limited, delegated, and discreet powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of Constitution. Here they are:

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;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian
Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

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;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

That’s it! These are the limited, delegated, and discreet powers that our Constitution gives to Congress; these eighteen (as listed above) specifically enumerated areas and responsibilities make up what the Founders called the Enumerated Powers Doctrine, which was designed to restrain and limit the power and reach of the Federal government. Where in this section of our Constitution does it say anything about health care? Our communist friends use the “general Welfare” clause mentioned in the Preamble and in Article 1, Section 8, Paragraph 1 of our Constitution as a basis for today’s welfare programs. However, they fail to understand the original intent of the Founders regarding this clause and instead interpret it through their own postmodern lens. Regarding the Preamble reference, the Supreme Court in Jacobsen v. Massachusetts (1905) ruled that the Preamble is a statement of goals and not an authorization to Congress (This is also confirmed on page 75 of the “The Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation” (1992), provided by the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO)). In relation to the Article 1 reference, the “general Welfare” clause, according to Thomas Jefferson, is “not a grant of power to ‘spend’ for the general welfare of the people, but was intended to ‘limit the power of taxation’ to matters which provided for the welfare of ‘the Union’ or the welfare of the whole nation. In other words, federal taxes could not be levied for states, counties, cities, or special interest groups” such as women, the poor, the middle class, the rich, etc. (Page 387 of “The Making of America” by the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS)). As Jefferson saw it, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.” James Madison affirmed this view in “that this clause restricted the taxing power to matters which provided support for the national government in carrying out its assigned responsibilities” (as listed in Article 1, Section 8)(Page 387 of “The Making of America”). Here is what some other Founders said regarding this clause:

Alexander Hamilton: “The welfare of the community is the only legitimate end for which money can be raised on the community. Congress can be considered as under only one restriction which does not apply to other governments, they cannot rightfully apply the money they raise to any purpose merely or purely local…The constitutional test of a right application must always be, whether it be for a purpose of general or local nature.”

Archibald MacLaine (of North Carolina): “Congress will not lay a single tax when it is not to the advantage of the people at large.”

Edmund Randolph (of Virginia): “the rhetoric of the gentleman has highly colored the dangers of giving the general government an indefinite power of providing for the general welfare. I contend that no such power is given.”

Hamilton: “The United States, in their united or collective capacity, are the objects to which all general
provisions in the Constitution must necessarily be construed to refer.”

Clearly, according to the Founders, Congress cannot grant things to individuals or preferred groups at the expense of another individual or preferred group, thereby harming the “general” populace. So, anyone who claims that the “general Welfare” clause allows the Congress to give away “welfare” has a profound misunderstanding of the history and of the Supreme Court interpretation of both clauses. Madison, who is known as the “Father of the Constitution” and who understands the original intent of the Founders regarding the true meaning of the “general Welfare” clause, delivered a severe warning to the first U.S. Congress regarding the unbridled power of the Federal government should Congress ever violate the original intent of this clause:

If Congress can apply 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 establish teachers in every State, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public Treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post roads. In short, everything 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 the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.

Here’s another great quote from Madison on this topic:

With respect to the two 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.

For Further Study

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “The Original Intent of the “General Welfare” Clause

  1. Regarding the General Welfare clause, you reference “the Supreme Court interpretation of both clauses” and specifically the Jacobsen v. Massachusetts ruling as evidence in support of your view. However, you seem to be ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius regarding the ACA.

    Additionally, ensure that your stance “Congress cannot grant things to individuals or preferred groups at the expense of another individual or preferred group” is uniform. Would it include grandma’s Social Security and Medicare benefits? How about Medicaid for those who have lost employment and SNAP transfer payments providing children of low-income families the ability to eat? To name a few.

    Posted by rtd | November 14, 2013, 11:46 PM
    • The article you are commenting on relates to the original intent of the Framers regarding the meaning of the term “General Welfare” – their words are copious and clear. Neither the court case you referred to, nor your second paragraph, squarely refute the Framer’s meaning. Moreover, defining late 18th century prose through a 21st century framework is historically imprecise.

      Posted by WilsonNCTeaParty | November 15, 2013, 12:22 AM
  2. I’m not attempting a refutation of the Framer’s meaning. Rather, trying to clarify your interpretation of the framer’s meaning. I agree that “defining late 18th century prose through a 21st century framework is historically imprecise” which begs the question is a 20th century framework any different (as you cited a 1905 court ruling)?

    Regarding the court case I referenced, I was pointing out the inconsistency in your argument of citing a Supreme Court ruling as support of the Court’s interpretation of the general welfare clause with your own interpretation/belief. However, the recent Supreme Court ruling doesn’t support the view you espouse of the Court’s interpretation of general welfare clause and/or constitutionality of ACA.

    Re my 2nd paragraph: I’m asking wether or not, in your view of the general welfare clause, the same applies to these issue government programs.

    As far as your comment that the framer’s “words are copious and clear” – keep in mind that there is a difference in the framer’s words and the words of the constitution. The latter, not so copious and not so clear to many.

    Posted by rtd | November 15, 2013, 12:43 AM
    • The Supreme Court ruling in 1905 in Jacobsen v. Massachusetts was given in agreement with the original intent of the Framers in mind, as the article above clearly sets forth; the court did not impose a 20th century definition upon the 18th century terminology in the Constitution, as National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius clearly did with its 21st century myopia in-tow.

      Finally, the Framer’s words – as found in the Federalist, in their correspondence between one another, in their various public writings and speeches, etc. etc. – explain their words in the Constitution and they are both copious and clear. The key for us is, will we force their words to mean what we wish or will we hear them from their purview?

      Posted by WilsonNCTeaParty | November 15, 2013, 1:23 AM
  3. Okay, thanks for your view on these issues. I see the path where discussions like these will follow around here.

    I suppose we can just be thankful that the framers had the forethought of explicitly including ArticleIII of the Constitution. You know, in the case that anything isn’t “copious and clear”……………………

    Posted by rtd | November 15, 2013, 1:47 AM
    • Well, the Founders did warn us that the Judicial branch would be infiltrated, at times, by activist judges who would reject the strict constructionist (a.k.a. originalist) view of the Founders and would thus legislate from the bench. These are those who would completely disregard the Founder’s original intent and impose their own.

      Posted by WilsonNCTeaParty | November 15, 2013, 2:42 AM
  4. Also (as stated originally), make sure your views/comments are consistent. If we are to unequivocally and unabashedly “hear them from their purview”, wouldn’t the 3/5 compromise still be in place? I’m hoping you don’t view the 13th amendment as a case of 19th “century myopia in-tow”.

    Posted by rtd | November 15, 2013, 2:08 AM
  5. Again, the three-fifths clause must be seen from the Framer’s point of view – See http://www.heritage.org/constitution/#!/articles/1/essays/6/three-fifths-clause and http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=122. The broader narrative and context surrounding this clause is worthy of deeper consideration than post-modernism has given thus far.

    Posted by WilsonNCTeaParty | November 15, 2013, 2:52 AM

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