General Welfare Clause: Did Alexander Hamilton Waffle?
Just two days before Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, he revealed who had written each of the Federalist Paper essays. That day, Hamilton appeared at the law offices of his friend, Egbert Benson. Egbert was away on business, but under the watchful eye of Benson's nephew, Robert, Hamilton strode to the book case, removed a book from the bookcase, placed something in it, and placed the book back on the shelf.
Shortly after Hamilton's death, Robert examined the same book and found [a] sheet of paper inserted between its pages. On this paper, Hamilton had written "Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 54 by J[ay]. Nos. 10, 14, 37 to 48 inclusive, M[adison]. Nos 18, 19, 20, M. & H[amilton] jointly. All others by H."In 1818, James Madison gave his account of who had written each Federalist essay. His tally was slightly different than Hamilton's. Their accounts did not, however, differ as to who had written essays #17 and #34. Historians agree that both of these essays were written by Hamilton.
Liberty's Blueprint, Michael I. Meyerson, p. 4
On December 5, 1787, Federalist #17 was published in the New York Independent Journal. Therein, Hamilton wrote that:
The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.Exactly one month later, the Journal published Hamilton's Essay #34. Hamilton wrote
The expenses arising from those institutions which are relative to the mere domestic police of a state, to the support of its legislative, executive, and judicial departments, with their different appendages, and to the encouragement of agriculture and manufactures (which will comprehend almost all the objects of state expenditure), are insignificant in comparison with those which relate to the national defense.Four years after that, in his Report on Manufactures, Hamilton might have appeared to be advocating a position diametrically opposed to his stance of late 1787 and early 1788.
...there seems to be no room for a doubt that whatever concerns the general Interests of learning of Agriculture of Manufactures and of Commerce are within the sphere of the national Councils as far as regards an application of Money.Was that a flip-flop? Maybe, but more than likely it was not. In one instance (Federalist essays #17 and #34), Hamilton discussed the inability of the federal government to govern in areas of a general nature, while in the second case (Report on Manufactures) he dealt with his perspective on that same government's ability to fund such pursuits.
James Madison fervently maintained the position, as he wrote in Federalist #45, that
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.Contrarily, it appears, Hamilton agreed with Madison in regards to the limitations on federal government's power, but they seemed to disagree on its involvement in funding such activities (and that assumed disagreement may not even be true). To clarify the difference between the governing versus the funding, Hamilton concluded his Report on Manufactures with this:
That the object to which an appropriation of money is to be made be General and not local; its operation extending in fact, or by possibility, throughout the Union, and not being confined to a particular spot.In other words, Hamilton says, don't object to the funding part of it by improperly inferring that I think the federal government can legislate on anything it might deem to be in the general welfare. Or--more simply--just because you can fund it doesn't mean you can legislate it. Maybe Madison and Hamilton were more in agreement about the General Welfare Clause of the Constitution than has been generally thought.
No objection ought to arise to this construction from a supposition that it would imply a power to do whatever else should appear to Congress conducive to the General Welfare. A power to appropriate money with this latitude which is granted too in express terms would not carry a power to do any other thing, not authorised in the constitution, either expressly or by fair implication.
Regardless of whether the Founders disagreed on the "general ability" of the federal government to legislate as regards the General Welfare, it seems easy to intuit that the Founders, were they alive today, would be unanimous in bemoaning that a great deal of what the federal government funds today is of a very un-general nature, and is therefore unconstitutional.
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Other Articles in this Series
- General Welfare Clause: The Constitution's Great Limitation
- General Welfare Clause: Without Limited Federal Powers, the Constitution Would Likely Never Have Been Ratified
- How the Next American Generation Destroyed the General Welfare Clause