Restoring the General to the General Welfare Clause
25 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2006
This article examines the original understanding of the Constitution's Spending Clause (giving Congress the power to tax for the common defense and general welfare) and the competing interpretations of it offered by Alexander Hamilton, on the one hand, and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, on the other. Madison contended that the Clause's reference to the general welfare was just short-hand for the powers granted elsewhere in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, while Hamilton viewed the clause as a stand-alone grant of power. Even Hamilton, though, believed that the power had limits - spending had to be for the general, or national, welfare and not for the welfare of a single state or locale. The article then traces the historical disputes about the constitutionality of internal improvements, from the watershed election of 1800, through presidential veto messages all the way to the eve of the civil war, and finally to the Supreme Court's New Deal-era decision in United States v. Butler, concluding that the blank check interpretation given to the clause since Butler simply cannot be squared with the original understanding of either Hamilton or Madison.
Keywords: Spending Clause, Limited Government, Constitution, United States v. Butler, South Dakota v. Dole, Madison, Hamilton
JEL Classification: H10,H11,H20,H30,H40,H41,H42,H50,H53,H54,H60,I31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation