The Founders and the “general welfare”

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The Constitution limits the powers of the Federal government. However, even a perfect document cannot stand up to philosophical evasion and corruption. Without the proper moral base, the principles of the Constitution could not be defended, much less kept alive.

To illustrate this, let us consider a few words in the preamble of the Constitution—what is commonly called the general welfare clause. This clause states that one of the reasons for the Constitution is to “promote the general welfare”.

As they are commonly used, terms such as “general welfare”, or “common good,” or “public interest” are undefinable. As these terms are generally used, they mean that society is to be considered apart from the individuals comprising it. The good of society supersedes the good of any individual.

There is no such entity as “the public”, there are only individuals. These terms actually mean that some individuals take precedence over other individuals, that some may impose their values on others.

The Founders, particularly Madison, understood that the general welfare clause could be abused. In Federalist Paper 83, Madison wrote:

If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion in to their own hands; they may appoint 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 assume the provision of the poor . . . Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.

Thomas Jefferson called the phrase “a mere ‘grammatical quibble’ that has countenanced the general government in a claim of universal power”. He mistakenly believed that the Founder’s had clarified their intentions and meaning, and debate over the meaning of the phrase would cease.

The Founders clearly understood the “general welfare” to mean the good of all citizens, not an open-ended mandate for Congress. The only good that applies to all citizens is freedom, and government’s proper role is the protection of that freedom. That was the meaning intended by the Founders.

Those who sought to expand government’s powers chose to ignore the explanations offered by the Founders. Corrupted by bad philosophy, they rejected the principles of the Founders and of the Constitution.

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