Thomas Jefferson on the Misuse of the Commerce and General Welfare Clauses

Barely 8 months before he died, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Virginia politician William Giles about the threat posed by the usurpation of states rights by a growing federal power. He identified federal powers claimed under the commerce and general welfare clauses as especially dangerous.


James Madison: Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

March 3, 1817: As his last official act as President, Madison vetoes a bill that would provide federal funding for building roads and canals throughout the United States. The President finds no expressed congressional power to fund roads and canals in the Constitution, and he believes that the federal government should not encroach upon matters reserved to state governments.


On General Welfare

In response to my recent essay, “The Tenth Amendment Prohibited the Living Constitution“, I received an e-mail which informed me that, ” the Constitution … gives Congress the power to make all laws necessary to execute its powers, including the power to provide for the general welfare, which has to include public health and safety.”

This is definitely a very common understanding, but is it correct?  Does the congress have the power to make all laws necessary to execute its powers, including the power to provide for the general welfare?

Let’s start with Article 1, Section 8, clause 1 of the US Constitution, which says,

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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

In modern English, the first phrase in that clause might be paraphrased in one of two ways.  First, by distributing the word power across each of the following phrases…

1.) The congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, etc…, the power to pay the debts, the power to provide for the common defense, and the power to provide for the general welfare….

Four powers all bundled into one clause.  Or second, by inserting the clarifying text, “in order”…