General Welfare Clause: Did Alexander Hamilton Waffle?

Alexander Hamilton at one point in his political career seemed to have held a very limited view of the federal government's powers, believing that such things as "agriculture and manufacture" were under the purview of state governments. Not long after taking such a stand, he advocated the federal government's role in funding such pursuits. Did Hamilton change his tune? It does not appear so. On the one hand, Hamilton seemed to be advocating that the federal government should have no legislative control over things for which no power had been granted to it, while on the other he seemed to believe that it was okay for congress to appropriate moneys to all of the states generally to fund such pursuits, because funding of such endeavors was within the parameters of the Constitution's General Welfare Clause.

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."

Liberty's Blueprint, Michael I. Meyerson, p. 4
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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  1. Interesting post. Your last paragraph is right on the money and I think gets to the true inclusive nature of the constitution. We can all - liberals and conservatives - get behind an effort to change that situation because it's the truth. With regard to the rest: How do you collect taxes without legislating?

  2. THAT (how to fund without legislating) is the $64,000 question. ;-) I thought about it as I was writing, but I don't know the answer to that. It is interesting, however, that this is what Hamilton seems to be advocating. I don't know that I have ever come across anything that Madison specifically about funding vs. legislating.

    I had actually come into writing this article planning to answer the "did he waffle" question with a clear "yes", but then I read and re-read and re-read the last two paragraphs of the Report on Manufactures, and suddenly I felt I was on to something I hadn't noticed before.

    Just from the perspective of "can fund but can't legislate", I think the federal government is overstepping its bounds with regard to health care. It seems, if Hamilton's view were to be correct, that the feds would be able to levy the taxes necessary, but would then have to apportion the revenue to the states (on a per capita basis???) so that they could figure out the best way to provide health insurance to their separate citizens. THAT would be, in my mind, far preferable to what is happening now.

  3. I think that is certainly an arguable point. What I think is key and I sense you are moving closer to is the idea that we need to step back from the brink with regard to our union, which condition comes about from accusing liberals of threatening the foundation of our country, which as I've attempted to show is a distortion of history. We can argue what constitutes sound policy all day and we should, but we should do it as brothers, not as patriots on one side and treasonous wacko devils on the other. This is my whole point.


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