In Our Continuing QuestAug 11, 2008
In our continuing quest to educate those who think the U.S. Constitution is a "living" document we, from time to time, have referred to quotes from those who wrote it. After all, who knew better the limits and role of the federal government than those who created it? Unfortunately, there are those who either don't know better (many of whom are in our public school systems, sad) or who do (many of whom are in Congress, sadder still) who intentionally disregard their oath to uphold the Constitution through an intentional misinterpretation of it. The public, in either case, gets a greatly distorted idea of the limits the Constitution places on the feds.
One example is the perpetuation of the myth that the Constitution's preamble calls for the federal government to "provide for the general welfare," thus the rationale for every big-government program Congress can imagine, funded, than you very much, by your hard-earned wages. False! It says "promote the general welfare." (Not to mention that there's nothing about "welfare" in any of the articles or subsequent amendments.) Contrast this with the line "provide for the common defence."
Promote. Provide. The former means to encourage. The latter is a mandate. Which explains precisely the reason the Framers wrote the Constitution: Frustrated by the states' hybrid approach to fighting and funding the War for Independence, they wanted a definitive and unifying form of government to deal with external threats and to conduct diplomacy. Pretty self-evident.
Back to what the Framers themselves said. Wrote James Madison, the Father of the Constitution:
With regard to the two words "general welfare," I have always regarded them as qualified by the powers connected with them. To take them in a literal sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.
Then, once on the floor of the House of Representatives, during debate on an appropriation for some type of relief:
I cannot undertake to lay my finger on the article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.
In the early years of the republic, bills were debated in Congress as much for their constitutionality as for their policy ramifications. Presidents vetoed bills on constitutional grounds when they saw no constitutional provision granting the federal government authority to impose itself for the remedy being sought. Then, those matters didn't always make it to the courts. In fact, there is nothing in the Constitution that grants the courts the role as sole arbiter of constitutional interpretation. Today, we have too few in public office who are willing to scrutinize the government's constitutional role in anything more than allowing them to get re-elected.