Tuesday, August 25, 2009

So What Does the General Welfare Clause Mean, Anyway?

I've been battling with some friends lately over the general welfare clause in the Constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, it reads thus (bolding is mine):

The Congress shall have 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; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

According to my liberal friend, those five words are not only justification, but explicit instructions to Congress regarding Social Security, Medicare, Welfare, Obamacare, and any other social program that can be thought up by our esteemed Washington elite.

When I told my friend I though he was nuts for thinking the Constitution said any of this, he challenged me to site any recognized Constitutional scholar that said otherwise. Well, I'm just a high school educated, guitar playing, post production working nerd, and most of my political opinion has come over the years from my own observation and what little studying I've done on my own, but I realized I should be able to explain better why I believe the way I do, so I did a little digging and this is what I found. I hope it sheds a little light on the matter for those of you who may be concerned about what our government has been up to over the last several years...

The basis for my opposition to Congress inflicting us with all manner of social experimentation comes from my belief that Congress has no business doing anything but that which it is specifically charged to do within the Constitution itself. I've found some quotes that show I am not the only one who ever felt this way:


"I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." - James Madison criticizing an attempt to grant public monies for charitable means, 1794

"The Constitution allows only the means which are ‘necessary,’ not those which are merely ‘convenient,’ for effecting the enumerated powers. If such a latitude of construction be allowed to this phrase as to give any non-enumerated power, it will go to every one, for there is not one which ingenuity may not torture into a convenience in some instance or other, to some one of so long a list of enumerated powers. It would swallow up all the delegated powers, and reduce the whole to one power, as before observed" - Thomas Jefferson, 1791

"Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." - Thomas Jefferson, 1798

"No legislative act … contrary to the Constitution can be valid. To deny this would be to affirm that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid." - Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 78

As for the question of welfare itself (public charity):

While vetoing a social welfare charity bill one president stated:
"[I must question] the constitutionality and propriety of the Federal Government assuming to enter into a novel and vast field of legislation, namely, that of providing for the care and support of all those … who by any form of calamity become fit objects of public philanthropy ... I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States. To do so would, in my judgment, be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded." - President Franklin Pierce, 1854

And while vetoing a bill appropriating relief charity from public monies another president stated:
"I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit." - President Grover Cleveland, 1887

Perhaps the greatest irony in the issue of welfare came from a statement by the Father of Big Government, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt, a man known for giving in on his previous word and selectively compromising his beliefs, not to mention the Constitution, in pursuit of an agenda. Roosevelt took to the podium on March 2, 1930 to talk about states rights as Governor of New York. In this speech, printed in entirity on March 3, 1930 by the New York Times, he had this to say:

"As a matter of fact and law, the governing rights of the States are all of those which have not been surrendered to the National Government by the Constitution or its amendments. Wisely or unwisely, people know that under the Eighteenth Amendment Congress has been given the right to legislate on this particular subject1, but this is not the case in the matter of a great number of other vital problems of government, such as the conduct of public utilities, of banks, of insurance, of business, of agriculture, of education, of social welfare and of a dozen other important features. In these, Washington must not be encouraged to interfere." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1930
Roosevelt went back on this statement not two years later as he was elected president and instituted the New Deal. In fact most of the key New Deal relief programs were immediately declared unconstitutional for the very reasons subject of this page.

1 Note: FDR refers to Prohibition of Alcohol, which in 1930 was a legal power of Congress granted by now cancelled Amendment 18 and enacted by the Volstead Act. Speech transcribed in the New York Times, March 3, 1930.


There are many, many more references where the Founders, Presidents, and respected Constitutional scholars state the same opinion in no uncertain terms, that the limits placed on Congress by the Constitution are definite and not up for negotiation (other than through the amendment process). We need to know this stuff if we are ever to make our case for restraint among our elected leaders. One thing I know for certain is I'm not the only one who feels this way, and I'm going to make my case wherever I can.

***I got the above quotes from one website of the many I've looked at recently. It appears to have not been updated in some time, but the information I found was interesting nonetheless. I can't vouch for anything else that might be found on the site:


Squiddy said...

This is great to refer back to when debating the issue with leftists! Although, I know you didn't get much continued debate out of Brother Comfort. He got schooled!!

Knucklehead Pete said...

My general welfare is served when morons in fancy hats stay the @#$! out of my life.