Have you ever noticed in the Constitution that it says the government is to provide for the welfare of the people?
The phrase “general Welfare” is found in two places in our Constitution: First in the Preamble, second in Article 1; Section 8. When this phrase appears in the Preamble it does not have to be examined too closely because the Preamble has no ruling authority in the Constitution; it was only meant as an introduction of sorts. Nevertheless, here are the two times it is found:
- “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.” (Preamble)
- “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 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.” (Article 1; Section 8)
Who Should We Listen To?
Historically, these clauses have been as a guard to keep Congress from spending too much money, whereas now it is exactly the opposite. A quick Google search on the word “welfare” provides some answers. As stated by the 2021 Mirriam-Webster dictionary the word welfare means, “the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity,” or, “aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need.” This definition seems to justify how Congress is determining the Constitution, but we have to look a little deeper to find its true meaning.
Surprisingly, the Constitution was not written in 2021, but in 1789, and the words back then did not all mean the same thing. Going back to the following century of the Constitution we find a most resourceful dictionary, the original Websters. This dictionary was first published in 1828, thirty years after the writing of the Constitution. According to the 1828 Webster’s dictionary the “welfare” can be defined as, “Exemption from misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil; the enjoyment of health and the common blessings of life; prosperity; happiness; applied to persons.” or, “Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states.”
Evidently, we should use the words in their same meaning as when and who we are studying use or used them. In this case, it is the latter definitions from Noah Webster.
What Does It Mean?
Before we put the right words with their right definitions back into context let’s see what some of the founders had to say about this clause. (Also known as the general Welfare clause.) According to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton this clause was meant to be a leash on what Congress could spend taxes on, not a grant of unlimited spending power.
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.James Madison April 20, 1831; Letter to James Robertson
Madison goes on and clarifies the point even more, saying that if this general welfare is understood in the modern light it would be directly contradictory to what it was originally intended to do.
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. It is to be remarked that the phrase out of which this doctrine is elaborated, is copied from the old articles of Confederation, where it was always understood as nothing more than a general caption to the specified powers, and it is a fact that it was preferred in the new instrument for that very reason as less liable than any other to misconstruction.James Madison January 21, 1792; Letter to Edmund Pendleton
Lastly, even the most liberal of all the founders Alexander Hamilton agreed with Madison saying that it is intended to restrain the government’s spending power, not increase it.
This specification of the particulars [the 18 enumerated powers of Article 1, Section 8] evidently excludes all pretension to a general legislative authority, because an affirmative grant of special powers would be absurd as well as useless if a general authority was intended.Alexander Hamilton; Federalist 83
How Is Congress Supposed To Use It?
Presently, Congress is interpreting Article 1, Section 8, backwards, they are using it as an encouragement to spend more money. We the national taxpayers are paying for others to go to colleges and universities in other states that we may never use nor need to use. We are also paying for Medicare and Medicaid even though not all of us will ever need to use it. (Wisely caring for the poor and sick without using tax money to do so, is another article that I will do in the future if anyone wants it. Just let me know in the comment section below.) There are many more examples that I will not name here, those are just two big ones.
The reason the above government programs are strictly unconstitutional is they are very specific in who they help, that is the job of the local government. The whole meaning of “general welfare” is that it helps the whole country, and by helping I do not mean performing the right for them. Such as giving people free insurance, that is not a right.
Congress should be using taxes to improve our general welfare, not our specific welfare. The limitations of the general Welfare clause was to keep the government in check, but what the government could not do went directly to the States and then to the people, “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.” Tenth Amendment
With the States and local governments given the right to be specific they can better tailor a fit to their own communities. This not only keeps the power hungry feds away from our lives but also puts money back into the pockets of all Americans because we are not paying for unconstitutional programs.
Thanks For Reading!
I first thought this would be an interesting topic when I was in a debate (at an online debate club) and was confronted with this part of the constitution. Naturally, I was debating against governments funded welfare programs so when this was brought up I did not know what to say. Even though my team did end up winning the debate I still was not happy that I was so clueless about this part of the Constitution. Thankfully, after doing quite a bit of research I finally found out that it did not mean what I first thought it had to mean. I hope you also learned something from this article, and you won’t be caught like a deer in the headlights when someone asks you the same question.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments please feel free to leave them down below. In Christ, Austin Anderson.
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.Proverbs 18:15