On “General Welfare”

One of the rare, positive effects that has come out of Congress recently is the introduction into the Rules of the House of Representatives the requirement to cite “as specifically as practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the bill…” (113th Congress, House Rules, Rule XII, paragraph 7c).

Sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately these days, when an equally rare Constitutional challenge is leveled against legislation making its way through Congress, more often than not, the knee-jerk response is that the “general welfare” clause gives them carte blanche authority to spend our tax money on social welfare programs.

To those who have not had the opportunity to closely study our founding documents and the primary sources of information from which we discern their original intent, this may sound legitimate–overly vague–but legitimate.

So, let’s dig into these original documents, debates, and correspondence which helped frame and clarify them.

President James Madison

President James Madison

First, we should see what the Constitution has to say about the “general welfare” of the United States.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (Preamble to the U.S. Constitution / Emphasis added)


“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;” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8; Emphasis added)

Aside from the definition of the word “welfare” from Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 which defines it as “ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states,” there are several primary sources to which we can turn to understand the intent of these phrases.

The first set of sources we will consider are The Federalist Papers which were written after the Convention to articulate to the public why the proposed Constitution was the right replacement to the Articles of Confederation.

The Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers

A key factor we must consider when studying the Constitution is that the document was written with the average man in mind–not for lawyers, judges, academics, etc. James Madison, considered the primary author of the Constitution, confirmed this for us in The Federalist Papers.

“It will be of little avail to the people… if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood;” (The Federalist No. 62)

Madison (and other framers) feared that the language and volume of our laws, beginning with the Constitution, could soon spiral out of control. To keep it in check, we would need to ensure that all of our legislators were not replaced at the same time in order to keep some institutional knowledge, and that the laws were written plainly for the common man to understand minimizing the need to re-write or amend them for clarity. This tells us that the framers carefully crafted the wording of the Constitution to keep it free from hidden, double, vague, or ambiguous meanings.

Bearing in mind the simple language with which the framers intended to write the Constitution, we should also review the debates of the framers during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Fortunately for us, several of the framers (including Madison) kept notes about the proceedings at the Convention from which we can glean even further insight into the original intent of the various clauses of the document. A terrific source for this purpose is the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3) which chronicles from several perspectives the debates, findings, and conclusions of the various committees at the convention. This is an invaluable treasure for those seeking the original intent of the framers.

Welfare — ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states.

-Webster’s Dictionary 1828

The first we learn about the phrase “general welfare” is from Edmund Randolph of the Virginia delegation. On May 29th, 1787, Mr. Randolph introduced what is now referred to as the Virginia Plan or Randolph Resolutions. The very first resolution advocates that the “articles of Confederation ought to be so corrected & enlarged as to accomplish the objects proposed by their institution; namely ‘common defence, security of liberty and general welfare'”. Notice the phrase “corrected & enlarged”–keep this phrase in mind and we will revisit it shortly.

In fact Article III of the Articles of Confederation read, “the said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.” So as we can plainly see, the phrase was borrowed from our first attempt at constituting our nation.

Through the rest of the proceedings of the Convention, anytime the clause containing “general welfare” is brought up (August 11th and August 25th, 1787), it is in the context of paying the debts owed from the Revolutionary War that were secured to “provide for the common defense and general welfare” of the newly formed nation. Also notice when the phrase is used in Article I, Section 8 (see above), it immediately follows the phrase “pay the debts”.

In fact, as Madison described in his letter to Andrew Stevenson on November 17, 1830 (which can be viewed in the Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol. 3, page 483), there was no need to refer to any future debts for those were already accounted for in the powers granted to Congress in Section 8. The only reason to include this phrase was to satisfy debts for “common defense and general welfare” prior to the new Constitution.

The final source we will look at is the correspondence of the primary author of the Constitution. Specifically we will look at the letter James Madison wrote to Andrew Stevenson in which he conveyed his intent and understanding of the incorporation of the phrase.

In addition to the argument presented above, Madison goes on to argue that the “general welfare” phrase could not be construed as unlimited and indefinite. If so, then how could it be “enlarged” as Edmund Randolph proposes on May 29th (remember his resolution from above?). A corollary to that argument is that there would not have been a need to enumerate such specific powers if the intent was to allow for unlimited scope of the phrase.

Finally, in the same letter, Madison argues that “it exceeds the possibility of belief, that the known advocates in the Convention for a jealous grant & cautious definition of federal powers, should have silently permitted the introduction of words or phrases in a sense rendering fruitless the restrictions & definitions elaborated by them”

Moreover, in the dozens of proposals by way of the Convention in 1787, the subsequent debates between the colonies prior to ratification in 1789, and the many proposed amendments to limit the power of the new federal government prior to 1791, it defies logic that this phrase would have escaped notice–especially from those who were still fearful of an out-of-control centralized government similar to the one for which they sacrificed their lives and treasures to separate from in the first place!

While this is just one of many phrases of the Constitution that has been warped and twisted for political purposes in recent years, what we should also take away from this study is that all it takes is a careful examination of the original documents to help us understand, return to, and ultimately defend the values and principles laid out by our Founding Fathers in the Constitution.