Letters of Liberty
                                                                           General Welfare  

                How General Welfare is interpreted is one of the most controversial in your Constitution.  It is found in both the preamble and Article I, section 8.  Although I cannot currently remember who said this, but he described general welfare as “a verbal exclamation point” for defending our borders and discharging our debts.  Today it is currently interpreted to give the legislative branch an unlimited spending ability.  But is this the original intent of General Welfare?  Did the Founding Fathers give a blank check to the federal government?  Are there any restrictions today on this clause?

                Fortunately after our Constitution was signed in 1787, the Federalist Papers were written.  The three men who wrote these essays also participated in the constitutional convention while the debates were still fresh in their minds.  What better source for the correct interpretation of the “general welfare” clause then the men who wrote this document?  Would they not be better qualified than any constitutional lawyer of scholar today?  It must be obvious that the author of a book, document, or essay would be the individual to turn to for the correct interpretation.  Unfortunately the men who participated and wrote of our Constitution are no longer alive; their writings can be picked up in any bookstore today.

                Some Anti-Federalists warned of future generation using the “general welfare” clause as an enumerated power which would lead to the demise of this country as it would put a strain on the relationship between states and the federal government.  But what was said in the Federalist Papers concerning this clause, in number 41, you will find James Madison remarks on this very subject.  “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?  I appeal to the objectors themselves, whether they would in that case have employed the same reasoning in justification of Congress as they now make use of against the convention.  How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation.”  James Madison was a Federalist at the time of these writing but it was evident he felt that the general welfare clause would never be taken out of context in future generations; unfortunately that is not be the case.

                For 120 years our politicians adhered to the original intent of the general welfare clause.  Even during the “long depression” starting in 1873 when all banks failed, the federal government did not intervene with any stimulus or bail outs.  They did not possess the power.  But during the early 1900’s the political winds seem to have changed.

                We know that in 1913 the legislative body revised the Constitution with the 16th Amendment allowing the government to tax both individuals and companies.  With a money supply now at their disposal all they needed was a spending provision.  It would have been prudent to again amend the Constitution to grant them this authority, but either the senate did not have the votes or perhaps they did not believe it was necessary to amend the Constitution.  During the 1930’s we experienced the depression which was harsh on virtually every American to some degree and FDR had some plans to stimulate the economy.  Unfortunately, his New Deal Plan was challenged in the Supreme Court and was overturned along with 5 other pieces of legislation during the mid 1930’s.

                The president has the authority to appoint Supreme Court Justices.  FDR wanted to add six more judges and he had some in the legislative branch supporting him.  Essentially threatening the Supreme Court by adding judges that would concur with his view of the Constitution, the Supreme Court reversed a previous decision making the general welfare clause an enumerated power.  It was commonly referred to as “a stitch in time saves nine”. Was this a correct judgment by the Supreme Court? 

                The enumerated powers given to the legislative branch are found in Article I, section 8 of your Constitution.  I have abbreviated them for your convenience.  There is no mention of general welfare in Article I, section 8.  Since the Supreme Court ruled that it is an enumerated power, doesn’t that change the dynamics of this article?  As an engineer I decided to place it with the rest of the enumerated powers in the mentioned section.  It looks like this now.

Congress has the Authority to:

                General Welfare of People

                Borrow money

                Establish Rules for Citizenship

                Tax

                Spend Money for Listed Powers

                Establish Bankruptcy Laws

                Standardize Measures and Weights

                Regulate Commerce between States, Indian Nations, and Foreign Nations

                Coin Money

                Punish Counterfeiting

                Declare War

                Establish a Postal System

                Build and Maintain a Navy

                Punish Acts of Piracy

                Establish a Uniform Militia

                Call up State Militias

                Establish Federal Courts

                Pass Copyright and Patent Laws

                Raise and Finance an Armed Militia

                Pass laws to implement the Above Enumerated Power

 

 

If General Welfare is an enumerated power and Congress can pass any law necessary and proper for any enumerated power, then could not Congress make laws to regulate commerce, punish counterfeiting, declare war, establish inferior courts, etc? 

Then if the delegates of the Constitutional Convention believed General Welfare to be an enumerated power, why did they list the other enumerated powers?  Since the delegates argued over not only the number but content of these powers, they did not include General Welfare.

As James Madison and many other Anti Federalist mentioned numerous times, General Welfare was a meaningless adjective which was reflected in the Articles of Confederation.  Either the delegates were correct and the Supreme Court made an incorrect decision or the Supreme Court was correct in its judgment and the delegates were drastically wrong in writing the mentioned enumerated powers listed in Article I, section 8 above.