Our 18th century Framers were precise grammarians. They spent months debating in the stuffy Philadelphia state house to thrash out every concept, idea, detail, clause and yes, punctuation, that ended up in our beloved Constitution. From James Madison’s notes, there is no question that every detail had to first pass a committee composed of a few members, and then survive withering examination by a committee of all state delegates.
Article I § 8 elaborates the declaration of limited legislative powers in Section 1: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”
Section 8 even has its own preamble:
The end, or grand purpose of the law is to provide for the “common Defense and general welfare of the United States.” What follows are the means.
Notice the many semicolons and only one period, at the very end of the entire section. That is right. Section 8 is a single, long, declarative sentence. There is no disconnect between the declaratory clause and the enumerated powers that follow. The enumerated powers (means) are components of a single thought, to provide for our common defense and general welfare (ends).
The Framers began with a broad statement, provide for the common Defense and general Welfare, and then got into specifics in the same sentence. It is no error or oversight that Article I, Section 8 was written this way. It was purposely done to make sure that a reasonably literate people could not ignore, confuse or abuse its meaning. Congressional powers are strictly limited to those enumerated to implement the purposes of this new government.
When viewed this way, the words of James Madison in Federalist #41 are perfectly clear: “Nothing is more natural or common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of the particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity.”
Even absent Madison’s comments, the grammar and punctuation combined with long length remove all doubt as to the relationship between the common Defense and general Welfare clause to the enumerated powers that follow.
Through misrepresentation of Section 8, “General Welfare” has long been horribly abused to justify almost any government action. It is not, by itself, a broad grant of power. This is reflected in early congressional debate over appropriations. The first congress refused to make a loan to a glass manufacturer after several members viewed such an act as unconstitutional. The fourth congress did not believe it had the power to provide relief to Savannah, Georgia after a devastating fire destroyed the city.1
First principles are of the utmost importance to a nation of laws. If the ends of appropriations were to expand beyond those enumerated in 1787, each and every addition should have been ratified by We The People. “General Welfare” abuse is merely part of the panoply of illegally expanded powers going far beyond all rational reading of the constitution.
It is up to us, the sovereign people to determine the means and ends of the government of our creation.
- Meese, Edwin. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2005. Page 93.