Thomas Jefferson rejected the “anything and everything” view of the general welfare clause that so many hold today.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause authorizes the federal government to do anything and everything imaginable, as long as it somehow relates to an undefined conception of “national common good.”
But supporters of the Constitution during ratification insisted that the general government would only exercise a very limited number of powers. As James Madison put it in Federalist #45, federal powers are “few and defined.” So, how can we reconcile the popular “anything and everything” conception of the general welfare clause and the ratification era promise of limited federal power?
Quite simply, we can’t, as Thomas Jefferson argued during the debate over the establishment of a national bank in 1791.
Jefferson fiercely opposed the formation of a national bank on constitutional grounds. He wrote, “The incorporation of a bank, and the powers assumed by this bill, have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the United States, by the Constitution.”
Some proponents of the bank claimed the general welfare clause authorized the creation of a bank. After all, it would benefit the entire United States and advance the general welfare of the union. Jefferson saw the writing on the wall and recognized that if this argument won the day, it would drastically expand the scope and power of the federal government. Jefferson warned that the establishment of 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.”
But Jefferson didn’t base his argument on mere hyperbolic assertions. He offered a detailed breakdown of the general welfare clause showing that it does not constitute a broad grant of authority to the federal government.
We find the general welfare clause in Article 1 Sec. 8. It reads:
“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” [Emphasis added]
Jefferson first rephrased the clause to emphasize its intended meaning.
“‘To lay taxes for the purpose of providing for t