Hermeneutics, the science and skill of interpretation, is most often applied to the Bible. But hermeneutics can be applied to any written document. For example, the Constitution is a piece of literature that requires interpretive skill to determine its meaning. I was reminded of this when I read a letter to the editor that appeared in The Wall Street Journal[1]. The writer equates the constitutional phrase “general welfare” with the “welfare state” because they sound alike. The Constitution must be interpreted in terms of its historical context, author intent, and specialized vocabulary as it was used in the eighteenth century.

The Constitution of 1787 set forth the taxing powers of the federal government in relation to its function. Taxes were collected for governmental functions as they were actually listed in the Constitution. If the Constitution did not specify a particular function, the federal government (Congress) had no power to collect taxes for it. The created national government was governed by the Constitution.

On the federal level, taxes were essentially “Duties, Imposts and Excises” whose purpose was “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States” (Article 1, Section 8). General Welfare was defined in the body of the Constitution. A careful reader will note that “general welfare” did not mean aid to some at the expense of others, as James Madison was quick to point out: “But what color can the objection have [that the phrase ‘general welfare’ is not specified by particulars], when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? . . . Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars . . . .”[2] The modern concept of general welfare is most often defined in terms of wealth redistribution where some members of society (“the rich”) are taxed heavily in order to benefit the “welfare” of others (“the poor”). General welfare, according to the Constitution, means welfare that benefits everybody. This can be clearly seen in providing “for the common Defense.” Taxes collected to defend the nation benefit everybody generally.

A study of some decisions of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government in the area of “general Welfare” will support the view that taxes could not be used to aid states or individuals:

President Monroe vetoed a bill for the improvement of Cumberland Road because he did not believe the work came within this clause. President Jackson for the like reason, vetoed every bill for public improvements that was not clearly for National welfare, as distinguished from local or State advantage. . . . River and harbor bills were vetoed by Presidents Tyler, Polk, Pierce, Grant, Arthur, and Cleveland. A bill appropriating $19,000,000 was passed over President Arthur’s veto in 1882, and a bill which President Cleveland vetoed in 1896, appropriating $80,000,000 was repassed by Congress. The Presidents regarded the appropriations as largely for local rather than National purposes, and therefore, as President Arthur put it, “beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.” Declaring that when the citizens of one state found that money of all the people was being appropriated for local improvements in another State they naturally “seek to indemnify themselves . . . by securing appropriations for similar improvements,” he concluded: “Thus as the bill becomes more objectionable, it secures more support.” President Cleveland deplored “the unhappy decadence among our people of genuine love and affection for our Government as the embodiment of the highest and best aspirations of humanity, and not as the giver of gifts.”[3]

Christians must elect representatives who will abide by the Constitution, not only in word but in deed. All candidates running for public office should be required to take a comprehensive test on the Constitution with the results of the test published so all can see that they really know and understand the Constitution they will swear to uphold. All schools should offer courses on our Constitution’s history, purpose, and application today. Citizens should understand the Constitution so they can vote intelligently on issues which confront them daily. Responsibility must return to the people while we still have some of our freedoms intact.


[1] “‘Promote General Welfare’ Sounds Fairly Definite,” The Wall Street Journal (March 21, 2006), A15. [2] The Federalist Papers, No. 41. [3] Thomas James Norton, The Constitution of the United States: Its Sources and Its Applications (Cleveland: The World Publishing Co., 1941), 45–46.