The One Question
What is the one question that nobody has been asking in the national congressional town hall meetings?
Why are Congress and the President entertaining a bill that
asserts power that has not been granted to
the Federal Government via the United States Constitution?
The Controversial Clauses Explained
The modern Federal Interpretation of the general Welfare Clause is:
"To lay and collect Taxes ...and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States"
Modern interpretation of the general Welfare clause enumerated in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution has given rise to the notion that the Federal Government can do whatever it wants so long as it is for the general Welfare of the United States. Way too often this clause is cited as the authorization for federal government involvement and the appropriation of funds to a vast array of purposes, well beyond the powers enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. Whereas prior to the ratification of the Constitution the framers made it very clear that the definition was to clarify, limit and explain the specific powers granted to Congress from within the Constitution.
The problem with the modern interpretation is that if Congress has the power to do whatever it wants so long as its for the general welfare then why did the framers bother to specifically list the powers granted to Congress, they would have wasted their time framing out the specifics.
James Madison wrote in a letter to Andrew Stevenson on November 27, 1830
"... the terms "common defence and general welfare" owed their induction into the text of the Constitution to their connexion in the "Articles of Confederation," from which they were copied, with the debts contracted by the old Congress, and to be provided for by the new Congress; and are used in the one instrument as in the other, as general terms, limited and explained by the particular clauses subjoined to the clause containing them; ..."1
Madison also wrote in Federalist 41,
" Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. 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." "2
The modern train of thought started after the ratification of the Constitution way back in 1791 with Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton changed his position from the original interpretation to what has progressed into the now modern interpretation that the federal government can do whatever it wants so long as its for the general welfare of the country.
Hamilton defended limited government under the general Welfare clause in Federalist 17 stating
" ... The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things in short which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction..."3
Hamilton changed his mind after the ratification on the Constitution as he wrote in a Report on Manfactures on December 5, 1791.
"It is therefore of necessity left to the discretion of the National Legislature, to pronounce, upon the objects, which concern the general Welfare, and for which under that description, an appropriation of money is requisite and proper. And there seems to be no room for a doubt that whatever concerns the general Interests of learning of Agriculture of Manufactures and of Commerce are within the sphere of the national Councils as far as regards an application of Money."4
This change in Hamilton's ideology set the stage for the continued abuses of the general Welfare clause through the pages of history on through to today.
(1) The Founder's Constitution, Article 1 Section 8 Clause 1 - http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_1s27.html
(2) James Madison - Federalist 41 - http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_12s22.html
(3) Alexander Hamilton - Federalist 17 - http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch8s23.html
(4) Alexander Hamilton - Report on Manufactures, December 5 1791 - http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_1s21.html
TJ Lawrence originally published this article on 08-27-2009 at www.CampaignForLiberty.com.