The federal government has assumed great responsibility to tax and provide for our citizens under the interpreted authority of the general welfare clause in the Constitution. Our Departments of Transportation, Education, Agriculture, and Interior are all justified by the general welfare clause. Most recently one of the main justifications of the Healthcare Act is that Congress has authority to create such a law because of the general welfare clause. But how Constitutional is this assumed authority? What would our founders say about this current view of federal power?
Since James Madison is called the Father of our Constitution, it makes sense that we would look to him for clarification on this point. Madison discussed this very issue in an argument he was making against subsidizing a cod fisherman in 1792.
“I, sir, have always conceived — I believe those who proposed the Constitution conceived — it is still more fully known, and more material to observe, that those who ratified the Constitution conceived — that this is not an indefinite government, deriving its powers from the general terms prefixed to the specified powers – but a limited government, tied down to the specified powers, which explain and define the general terms.” James Madison, On the Cod Fishery Bill, granting Bounties 1792
Madison was very simply explaining that the clause “common defense and general welfare” was not meant to expand the power of the government beyond its limitations, but to describe the purpose of the power delegated within strict confinement of those boundaries. How we have flipped this nation on its head! We have allowed our government to take the description of the purpose of its power and turn it into its very power. This aberration of our founder’s intent is not without consequence. We cannot have it both ways; it is either a limited government or one completely without limits.
It is clear that the framers purposefully and intentionally created a federal government that was to be limited in power and scope. Extremely limited.
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. The [powers of the federal government] will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. Fed. 45
Simply speaking, if it is not war, peace, negotiations and foreign commerce, the federal government is not supposed to be involved in it. Period. And, further explanation will show, that they are not even supposed to have the power to tax and subsidize, unless it is attached to those four things. Madison knew such misinterpretations would unleash Pandora’s Box.
“There are consequences, sir, still more extensive, which, as they follow dearly from the doctrine combated, must either be admitted, or the doctrine must be given up.” James Madison, On the Cod Fishery Bill, granting Bounties 1792
Although our founders may not have known about all our great technological advancements and the needs of our modern day society, they knew that human nature remains the same. They did not have to know where we would end up, because they knew where they had come from.
“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” Patrick Henry St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775.
With astounding foresight Madison describes what an America, that ignores and distorts Constitutional meaning would look like.
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their Own hands; they may a point teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schoolsthroughout the Union; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake theregulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I have mentioned would admit of the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.” James Madison, On the Cod Fishery Bill, granting Bounties 1792