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General welfare clause of the Constitution and how it's abused today

Author Mary Webster speaks at special July 4th weekend in McMinnville
By Mary Webster July 13, 2021

While I was visiting Yamhill GOP—God bless you all—there is great hope for our beloved State of Oregon, I was asked about the “general welfare” clause in the U.S. Constitution.

The phrase “general welfare” is used twice in the U.S. Constitution (emphasis added):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.

—The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution Tweet

…and again within Article I:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

—Article 1, Section 8, U.S. Constitution. Tweet

Contrast this with examples of what is often done today

Take for example:

  • A court rules that the president cannot use defense funds to defend the U.S. border; or
  • A presidential candidates promise free health care, free college, guaranteed income.

This “general welfare” phrase has been used to expand the federal government into areas it was never supposed to go—i.e.: education, health care, wages, etc.

Some Founding Fathers warned this would happen:

Some people have attacked the language that defines the taxation power, saying it amounts to an unlimited license to use any and every power that may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare.

—Federalist Paper #41[23] Tweet

Today, this sounds prophetic.  So, how does The Federalist Papers explain the meaning of “general welfare”?

Stooping to such a misconstruction proves how far these writers will reach to find objections to the Constitution. If 'to raise money for the general welfare' was the only definition of Congressional powers in the Constitution, the critics might have a reason for the objection. However, the specific congressional powers are listed after the general phrase. Nothing is more natural than to first use a general phrase and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

—Federalist Paper #41[23-25]* Tweet

"Necessary and proper" clause

And To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

—U.S. Constitution Article I., Section 8 Tweet

The Federalist Papers are especially clear on this subject:

The ‘necessary and proper’ clause authorizes the national legislature to pass those laws that are necessary and proper to execute the powers listed in the Constitution. Any objection must be to the specific powers, not the general declaration. The declaration may be redundant, but it is harmless.

—Federalist Paper #29[4]* Tweet
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Constitution was debated and ratified

“The ‘necessary and proper’ clause of the Constitution is the last clause of Article 1, Section 8. 

It…only declares a truth. The act of creating a federal government and giving it specific powers implies this clause. The constitutional operation of the proposed government would be precisely the same if the clause was removed or if it was repeated in every article.

The term ‘power’ means having the ability to do something. ‘Legislative power’ means that the legislature will have the power to make laws.

"By following this simple reasoning, we can judge the true meaning of the controversial clause. The truth is obvious: the power to lay and collect taxes includes all laws necessary and proper to execute that power. The ‘necessary and proper’ clause in the Constitution only restates this obvious conclusion. (This clause is sometimes called the ‘sweeping clause.’)

“…Any objection must be to the specific powers, not the general declaration. The declaration may be redundant, but it is harmless… “Who judges whether federal laws are necessary and proper? “First, if we removed the ‘necessary and proper’ clause, we can still ask the question about the powers themselves. Second, the national government, the States and the citizens must judge the proper exercise of its powers.

“If the federal government overreaches its authority and uses its power tyrannically, the people, who created it, must go to the Constitution. They must correct the injury done to the Constitution. To determine if a law is constitutional, we must look at whether the law is based on Constitutional powers.

“Suppose the federal legislature attempts to change the law of descent in a State. Clearly, this is outside the federal government’s jurisdiction and would trespass on the State’s authority. Or suppose that the federal government tries to abolish a State’s property tax, saying it interferes with federal revenues. This would be an invasion of the concurrent tax jurisdiction.”

—Federalist Paper #33 [1-6]* Tweet

The Federalist Papers discuss the “necessary and proper” clause in several more places.  But I think the above quotes explain the basic idea behind the clause.

I think that the Founding Fathers expected that U.S. citizens would study the Constitution as part of their education.  And they left the Federalist Papers as a tool to be used in that pursuit.  And we, the citizens, are responsible for demanding that the government stay within its limited powers.

Interior meeting room where the states' representatives debated the new Constitution

* Excerpts fromThe Federalist Papers: Modern English Edition Two, Webster, 2008 (see on sidebar)

Books by Mary Webster

The Federalist Papers
Modern Language

The Federalist Papers
Modern English Edition Two

Buy on Amazon

The United States Constitution: Annotated with The Federalist Papers in Modern English