Thomas Jefferson on the General Welfare Clause

“General welfare” does not mean “anything they want.” People point to the general welfare clause in Article 1 Sec. 8 of the constitution to support the idea that the federal government can do just about anything. In fact, proponents of a national bank in 1791 used this clause as one of their constitutional justifications. But Thomas Jefferson vigorously opposed this expansive reading of the clause during the bank debate. He said this anything and everything approach to promoting the general welfare would drastically expand the scope and power of the federal government. On top of that, he warned that establishing a national bank on this basis would enable Congress to “take possession of a boundless field of power” which would give it the means “to do whatever evil they please.” Jefferson didn’t base this argument on mere hyperbolic assertions. He offered a detailed breakdown of the clause showing it is not a broad grant of authority. Jefferson first noted that the general welfare clause authorizes Congress to tax only for the general welfare not for the benefit of specific regions, specific interests, or specific people. It is actually a limitation on the taxing power. Of course, this leaves a lot of wiggle-room for dishonest politicians. They can come up with all kinds of things that might promote the “general welfare,” including a national bank. But Jefferson slammed the door on that idea too, pointing out that if the clause delegated “a distinct and independent power to do any act they please, which might be for the good of the Union,” it would “render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless.” Simply put, the general welfare clause is limited by the enumerated powers that follow. The feds can only do the things on that short list to promote the general welfare.


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