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What is the idea of “Promote the General Welfare” and its meaning?

The 1790s were a contentious decade. Washington’s Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, came to his post armed with an economic program that could be enacted only if the Constitution were interpreted broadly rather than in the more restrictive sense that secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and his allies preferred. Hamilton was concerned that the states would render the federal government feeble and impotent.


Promote the General Welfare Meaning: The Roots of Big Government

The first major constitutional controversy in American history involved the issue of a national bank, a key part of the Treasury secretary’s program. Hamilton believed that a national bank was critical to the new nation’s economic well-being and could be constitutionally justified on the basis of the “necessary and proper” clause and other grounds. Jefferson believed both that a bank was not necessary and that the states had never provided the federal government the constitutional power to establish one.

Jefferson joined James Madison, then a member of Congress, in his constitutional objection to the bank. Madison later gave in on the bank. But on the eve of his departure as president in 1817, Madison vetoed the “bonus bill,” which authorized federal expenditures for constructing roads and canals. In his veto message, Madison wrote that the use of federal funds for road and canal building was a good idea, but he insisted that the Constitution would have to be amended first to make it possible. As matters stood, the federal government had no constitutional authority to do such things.

Madison dismissed the claim that the proposed legislation could be justified by the Constitution’s clause authorizing the federal government “to provide for common defense and general welfare.” To the extent that politicians today even bother to justify federal legislation on constitutional grounds, they appeal to this clause. But to argue this way, Madison said, would render “the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them.” If the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution authorized the Congress to do anything that tended toward the general well-being of the country, then why had the Framers bothered to specifically list the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8? This very fact logically precluded the possibility that the general welfare clause constituted a broad, open-ended grant of power.

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