Given that this is a critical election cycle, I think it important to remind ourselves of what the Constitution actually says. It seems that both parties have forgotten, or worse, ignored, what the Constitution actually allows the federal government to do, which isn’t a whole lot.
It is helpful to remember that the Constitution severely limits the power of the federal government, and with good reason. It is the nature of government to grow and expand beyond its intended mandate. The framers of the Constitution were ever mindful of two things:
1) The tyranny of a monarch, specifically their own monarch, King George III, and
2) The tyranny of a mob, as seen by the buildup to the French Revolution.
Both of these demonstrated a great potential for evil to run amuck. Which is why the US is not a pure democracy, nor is it an authoritarian dictatorship, both of which are forms of tyranny. Rather, the US is a constitutional, representative republic. We have a central document that is the final, legal authority, and the citizens of the individual states elect people who are suppose to represent the interest of the individuals in the states they represent, while submitting to the limits the Constitution puts on the various offices.
There will be words or phrases hyperlinked in each section of the Constitution. They link to a site that provides definitions and/or explanations of concepts to better understand the context that is in play. For example, in the Preamble, the phrase “…promote the general Welfare…” with the word “welfare” hyperlinked. The site linked states the following about the use of the word welfare:
welfare n. 1. health, happiness, or prosperity; well-being. [<MEwel faren, to fare well] Source: AHD
Welfare in today’s context also means organized efforts on the part of public or private organizations to benefit the poor, or simply public assistance. This is not the meaning of the word as used in the Constitution.
I encourage you to also make use of the links. It allows for a much greater understanding of the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. While it is popular to “internalize” the intent of a document, or book, and to figure out “what it means to me”, without taking into account the authors’ intent, the Constitution was written in a cultural context that values author intent and had no concept of “personal meaning” as we have today.
With that in mind, we start with the Preamble.
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.
What I find striking in this introduction is that it starts with “We the People of the United States…”. Immediately, the document recognizes that that the state has no authority, or power of its own. Whatever power it has, is given, and then only in a supremely limited sense.
As a Reformed Christian, I have one difficulty. The Constitution states that the power of the federal government is granted by the people it is charged with governing, and the consent of the governed is an important thing. However, ultimately all governing authorities derive their power by the ordination of God. (Romans 13:1-4).
Moving to the next phrase, “in order to form a more perfect Union…”, not a perfect one, just one more perfect than the one they left. Given the tyranny of the British Crown, it is not hard to imagine that the colonialist would be increasingly frustrated that the government would ignore them, and even double down on the tyranny.
The “general welfare” clause is one that has come under much debate in recent decades. What we think of as welfare is not what the framers had in mind. Thomas Jefferson, in one of his letters stated that,
[T]he laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised. They [Congress] are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please; but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union. In like manner, they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. (Boyd, Julian P., ed. (1950). The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 19. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 285. http://www.princeton.edu/~tjpapers/index.html.)
And in 1824, Chief Justice John Marshall, in Gibbons vs. Ogdon, stated that:
Congress is authorized to lay and collect taxes, &c. to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States. … Congress is not empowered to tax for those purposes which are within the exclusive province of the States. (Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 199 (1824).)
This requires that the General Welfare Clause be understood in the context of the whole of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, specifically, the 10th Amendment. Welfare as we know it today, is not the business of the federal government, but the individual states, for reasons that I will discuss in a later post. By welfare, I mean welfare for individuals, as well as businesses that some seem to think are “too big to fail”.
In the next post, I will begin to examine Article 1 – The Legislative Branch.