Saturday, May 1, 2010

"Promote the General Welfare"

Possibly the most misquoted and misunderstood  line from the constitution.  Especially today in our current "welfare state".  Many like to invoke this line and the section in the Preamble in order to justify just about anything they want to do with tax payer dollars.

James Madison author of those words said this,

"With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

What is general welfare? What does this phrase empower the government to do? Has the interpretation of this phrase changed since the era of the Founders? Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to use this term  during the Second Continental Congress in 1775 from it's original implementation in the Articles of Confederation.

To understand it's usage you cannot simply apply current day definitions. The 1828 Webster’s dictionary lists two definitions for welfare.  One which applies to a person and another that applies to States, or bodies of government.  It is safe then to apply the second definition in this case.  

"Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government."

The current Marrian-Websters dictionary has dismissed the last definition and added this current understanding.

"Aid in the form of money or necessities for those in need & an agency or program through which such aid is distributed."

As you can see here the difference between the two definitions is indeed dramatic as they are wholly incompatible with one another.  Let's look at what Noah Webster wrote back in 1833 in regards to word usage and meaning over time.

"In the lapse of two or three centuries, changes have taken place which, in particular passages, ... obscure the sense of the original languages.... The effect of these changes is that some words are not understood ... and being now used in a sense different from that which they had ... present wrong signification of the false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced... mistakes may be very injurious. "

Once the original definition of the “general welfare” clause is applied it is important to than look at more of James Madison's own words.

"Money cannot be applied to the General Welfare, otherwise than by an application of it to some particular measure conducive to the General Welfare. Whenever, therefore, money has been raised by the General Authority, and is to be applied to a particular measure, a question arises whether the particular measure be within the enumerated authorities vested in Congress. If it be, the money requisite for it may be applied to it; if it be not, no such application can be made."

"Madison here refers to the enumeration of powers, the specific list of items stated in the Constitution for which the government is given authority. All other powers not mentioned are denied to the government, as the tenth amendment declares:" - (1) Connor Boyack

The Tenth Amendment, which makes explicit the idea that the federal government is limited only to the powers granted in the Constitution, is generally recognized to be a truism. It would appear when reading history after the progressive era many try to make the claim that the 10th Amendment as written adds nothing to the Constitution as originally ratified.  The supreme court found in 1931 in United States v. Sprague that the 10th Amendment did not prohibit prohibition.  Prohibition of course was repelled later in 21th Amendment. but the damage was already done.   

This is why we cannot simply look at current meaning and simply insert it to justify our agenda.  Consider this the next time you hear someone invoke the Constitution to "Promote the General Welfare".



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