What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
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One of the most misunderstood and misapplied clauses in the Constitution is found in the preamble, which states that the Constitution was ordained and established “in Order to … promote the general Welfare”.
What is general welfare? What does this phrase empower the government to do? Has the interpretation of this phrase changed since the era of the Founders?
The phrase, proposed by Benjamin Franklin to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, was originally implemented in the Articles of Confederation, as follows:
The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…
While such a stipulation was provided, the government was not given power to raise funds to actually secure the general welfare, and thus the provision lacked power and funding. And so, when the Constitution was created, Congress was given power in Article I Section 8 to raise funds for such a purpose:
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to … provide for the … general Welfare of the United States.
To understand the phrase better, it is also important to define the word using the vernacular of the time. The 1828 Webster’s dictionary lists two definitions for welfare: one to be applied to persons, and one to states (political bodies). As the Constitution was written to list the government’s powers and restrictions, the definition for states must be used, which reads:
Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government.
Note that the definition closely links welfare to protection (from unusual evil or calamity) and security (peace and prosperity). This stands in contrast with the current definition according to Webster’s dictionary:
Aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need; an agency or program through which such aid is distributed.
The difference between the two definitions is striking; indeed, they are wholly disparate. This etymological evolution was commented on by Noah Webster himself (the man responsible for the 1828 dictionary):
In the lapse of two or three centuries, changes have taken place which, in particular passages, … obscure the sense of the original languages…. The effect of these changes is that some words are not understood … and being now used in a sense different from that which they had … present wrong signification of the false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced… mistakes may be very injurious. (Noah Webster, via Quoty)
Once the original intent and definition of the “general welfare” clause is understood, it is important to observe how the phrase can be Constitutionally implemented. James Madison commented on this as follows:
Money cannot be applied to the General Welfare, otherwise than by an application of it to some particular measure conducive to the General Welfare. Whenever, therefore, money has been raised by the General Authority, and is to be applied to a particular measure, a question arises whether the particular measure be within the enumerated authorities vested in Congress. If it be, the money requisite for it may be applied to it; if it be not, no such application can be made. (James Madison, via Quoty)
Madison here refers to the enumeration of powers, the specific list of items stated in the Constitution for which the government is given authority. All other powers not mentioned are denied to the government, as the tenth amendment declares:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
And so, Madison here clarifies that the “general welfare” clause holds no power outside of the specific items government is given power, in the Constitution, to control and regulate. Thomas Jefferson likewise agreed:
[O]ur tenet ever was, and, indeed, it is almost the only landmark which now divides the federalists from the republicans, that Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation of the purposes for which they may raise money. (Thomas Jefferson, via Quoty)
The government, then, is not authorized to collect taxes nor enforce the redistribution of wealth (when applied to the modern definition of “welfare”) unless the object of their desire is found in the powers enumerated unto them. Such limited powers is a hallmark of a Republican government, as Madison stated:
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)
One must always remember that the Constitution was written for our government, and therefore the “general welfare” it refers to is that of the government itself, not of individual citizens. The Founders of this nation never intended for Uncle Sam to become a dole-dishing agent of wealth redistribution, and the fact that our government serves this role today shows how far we have strayed from the object and design of the Constitution.