The “General Welfare Clause” – Part 2

Posted on December 27, 2012 by Old Marine

Thomas Jefferson Defines and Presidents Uphold Constitution

Thomas Jefferson was not in attendance during the meeting of the Constitutional Convention (he was inParis), but he was in close communication withMadisonand the other delegates. HOWEVER, he knew the Constitution.

In a June 16, 1817 letter to Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson discussed the General Welfare Clause after President Monroe had vetoed a bill for the improvement of theCumberland Road(Monroedid not believe the work fell within the scope of the General Welfare Clause):

You will have learned that an act for internal improvement, after passing both Houses, was negatived by the President. The act was founded, avowedly, on the principle that the phrase in the Constitution which authorizes Congress ‘to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare,’ was an extension of the powers specifically enumerated to whatever would promote the general welfare; and this, you know, was the Federal doctrine. Whereas our tenet ever was, and, indeed, it is almost the only landmark which now divides the Federalists and the Republicans, that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but was restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant that they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have meant that they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation on the purposes for which they may raise money.

I think the passage and rejection of this bill a fortunate incident. Every State will certainly concede the power; and this will be a national confirmation of the grounds of appeal to them, and will settle forever the meaning of this phrase, which, by a mere grammatical quibble, has countenanced the General Government in a claim of universal power. For in the phrase ‘to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare,’ it is a mere question of syntax, whether the two last infinitives are governed by the first, or are distinct and co-ordinate powers; a question unequivocally decided by the exact definition of powers immediately following.

After Jefferson’s explanation (possibility one of the most enlightened ever made) which was applied to an actual case in legislation, an educated person should find this early interpretation of the General Welfare Clause conclusive.[1]

However, six years later, Jefferson would once again revisit the subject: “I have been blamed for saying that a prevalence of the doctrine of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution. I answer by asking if a single State of the Union would have agreed to the Constitution had it given all powers to the General Government? If the whole opposition to it did not proceed from the jealousy and fear of every State of being subjected to the other States in matters merely its own? And if there is any reason to believe the States more disposed now than then to acquiesce in this general surrender of all their rights and powers to a consolidated government, one and undivided?”[2]

President Andrew Jackson, believing in what Jefferson, as well as Madison, Hamilton and Wilson felt about the General Welfare Clause, vetoed every bill for public improvements that was not clearly for National welfare, as distinguished from local or State advantage. Jackson said, “We are in no danger from violations of the Constitution from which encroachments are made upon the personal rights of the citizen . . . . But against the dangers of unconstitutional acts which, instead of menacing the vengeance of offended authority, proffer local advantages and bring in their train the patronage of the government, we are, I fear, not so safe.

Throughout the 1800’s many river and harbor bills were vetoed by Presidents Tyler, Polk, Pierce, Grant, Arthur (although a bill appropriating $19,000,000 was passed over Arthur’s veto in 1882) and Cleveland. The Presidents looked at the appropriations as largely benefiting local purposes rather than National Purposes, and as President Arthur put it, “…beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.” Declaring that when the citizens of one State found that money of all the people was being appropriated for local improvements in another State they naturally “seek to indemnify themselves . . . by securing appropriations for similar improvements,” he concluded: “Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable, it secures more support.”

President Cleveland, evidently seeing that Congress seemed to be moving towards measures that would “bring home the Pork” gave them a lesson in constitutional law during his fourth annual message: “The preservation of the partitions between the proper subjects of Federal and local care and regulation is of such importance under the Constitution, which is the law of our very existence, that no consideration of expediency or sentiment should tempt us to enter upon doubtful ground.

We have undertaken to discover and proclaim the richest blessings of a free Government, with the Constitution as our guide. Let us follow the way it points out — it will not mislead us.“[3]

It appeared that Congress did not take this “lesson” to heart. The following year he vetoed a bill appropriating money from the National Treasury for the purchase of seed wheat to relieve the farmers in a drought-stricken area. In that message he defined the meaning of the General Welfare Clause as Madison and the others interpreted it: “Under the limited and delegated authority conferred by the Constitution upon the General Government the statement of the purposes for which money may be lawfully raised by taxation in any form declares also the limits of the objects for which it may be expended. . . . This ‘general welfare of the United States,’ as used in the Constitution, can only justify appropriations for national objects and for purposes which have to do with the prosperity, the growth, the honor, or the peace and dignity of the Nation.“[4]

In 1921, President Harding addressed the General Welfare Clause, saying, “Just government is merely the guarantee to the people of the right and opportunity to support themselves. The one outstanding danger of today is the tendency to turn to Washington for the things which are the tasks or the duties of the forty-eight commonwealths.” This tendency would begin in 1933.

Continued Part 3 The Destruction of the Constitution

[1] Norton, Thomas James, Undermining The Constitution
A History of Lawless Government, The Devin – Adair Co, New York, New York, 1950. Pg 191
[2] Ibid. Pg. 192
[3] Ibid. Pg 194
[4] Ibid. Pg. 194


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