The Federalist Papers Debunk the General Welfare Clause

Remember when we kept hearing arguments from Democrats that the “general welfare clause” made the health care bill constitutional? Hoyer said, “Well, in promoting the general welfare the Constitution obviously gives broad authority to Congress to effect that end.” Nevermind the fact that some don’t even know the wording of it, taking to account that they have said, “charges Congress with the health and well-being of the people,” and Conyers called it “the good and welfare clause.” We know what they were trying to refer to; the Preamble (to a lesser extent) and (mostly) the beginning of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution:

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;

Ever since I started paying attention to politics (probably much more than is healthy, honestly) I’ve been on the search for truths. Original intent is a big deal, as it is what is usually distorted by the hard-left seeking power. I recently got my copy of The Federalist Papers in the mail. In the back of this book there is an index that points to where certain topics are discussed. I actually saw something about the “general welfare clause,” and found the truth I was looking for.

Before I went on about it, though, I wanted to find the argument of the Anti-Federalists on this issue. Here is what I found in Brutus 6:

I would ask those, who reason thus, to define what ideas are included under the terms, to provide for the common defence and general welfare? Are these terms definite, and will they be understood in the same manner, and to apply to the same cases by every one? No one will pretend they will. It will then be matter of opinion, what tends to the general welfare; and the Congress will be the only judges in the matter. To provide for the general welfare, is an abstract proposition, which mankind differ in the explanation of, as much as they do on any political or moral proposition that can be proposed; the most opposite measures may be pursued by different parties, and both may profess, that they have in view the general welfare; and both sides may be honest in their professions, or both may have sinister views. Those who advocate this new constitution declare, they are influenced by a regard to the general welfare; those who oppose it, declare they are moved by the same principle; and I have no doubt but a number on both sides are honest in their professions; and yet nothing is more certain than this, that to adopt this constitution, and not to adopt it, cannot both of them be promotive of the general welfare.

It is as absurd to say, that the power of Congress is limited by these general expressions, “to provide for the common safety, and general welfare,” as it would be to say, that it would be limited, had the constitution said they should have power to lay taxes, &c. at will and pleasure. Were this authority given, it might be said, that under it the legislature could not do injustice, or pursue any measures, but such as were calculated to promote the public good, and happiness.

Sounds pretty similar to what is going on right now, doesn’t it? Now, let’s look to the Federalist 41 written by Madison. I’m going to chop a bit here because Madison also argues that similar language was in the Articles of Confederation already. This is where we find our original intent:

It has been urged and echoed, that the 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,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms “to raise money for the general welfare.” But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.


But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare?

Well President Madison, I believe you now have your answer.

At any rate, here is Madison explaining that the powers given to Congress are spelled out right afterward, “Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.” Here we have our original intent that debunks using the general welfare statement in the context of “whatever the hell Congress feels.”

3 Responses to The Federalist Papers Debunk the General Welfare Clause

  1. Avatar RedMango
    RedMango says:

    Very nice post!

  2. Pingback:Constitution Talk? Yes, Allahpundit | Robert L. Bryant

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