The Constitution says, “Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, &c., provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States”. I suppose the meaning of this clause to be, that Congress may collect taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare, in those cases wherein the Constitution empowers them to act for the general welfare. To suppose that it was meant to give them a distinct substantive power, to do any act which might tend to the general welfare, is to render all the enumerations useless, and to make their powers unlimited.
Source: Opinion on Fugitive Slaves, 1792 (Foley, 3392)
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The language Jefferson quotes is from Article 1, Sect. 8 of the U.S. Constitution. It is commonly known as the “general welfare clause.” What constitutes “general welfare” has been debated and battled over since the nation’s founding.
Strict constitutional constructionists like Jefferson looked to Amendment 10, and claimed the national government’s authority is only what is specifically granted by the Constitution. All other authority belongs to the states. Thus, “general welfare” can mean only those specific responsibilities. National funds could not be spent on roads, canals, education, welfare, medical care, disaster relief, etc., because the Constitution does not give that authority to the national government. These folks support limited taxation and government.
Loose constructionists like Alexander Hamilton maintained that if an action could be interpreted to promote the “general welfare” of the nation, taxes could be levied to support it. Thus, roads, canals, education, welfare, medical care, disaster relief, etc., which do benefit the nation, are justifiable activities for the national government. These folks support a more activist government and the taxation necessary to support it.
Jefferson believed that if the constitutional limits weren’t really limits after all, then the national government’s powers were limitless. He feared an all-powerful government.
What value does “strict construction” have for your audience today?
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The Moral Liberal Thomas Jefferson Editor, Patrick Lee, is a professional speaker, actor and writer. Since 1990, he has inspired, entertained and educated audiences from Maine to Hawaii with his authentic, first person leadership presentations as President Thomas Jefferson, Frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Lewis & Clark Co-Leader William Clark. He also appears as himself, The Hopeful Humorist™, with a program of motivational humor, patriotism and inspiration.
His business address is www.ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com.