WE THE PEOPLE: Article 1: The meaning of Words

“We the people,” a phrase that suggests a grouping of individuals banding together to a common end, is the preamble to what may be the most ambitious document of self-government ever written, the Constitution of the United States of America. Considering the document is more than two hundred years old and conditions have changed markedly since its adoption, it is not surprising that the courts are continually called upon to determine whether a law, regulation or executive order is constitutional. Since the Constitution is silent or ambiguous on many issues of the day, much depends on the court’s interpretation of words and the context in which they are used.

Broadly speaking, there are those who try to discern the meaning of words based on the original intent of the Founding Fathers, while others see the Constitution as a living document to be interpreted in light of current societal standards.

But beyond deciding an issue in the courts, one’s point of view influences the interpretation of such words, which in turn, drives public policy and the resulting role of government in people’s lives. Look at the words the Founding Fathers used to explain the objectives of a document they called the Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

What does “establish Justice” mean? Certainly something different today than it did in 1787. In fact, the thirteenth amendment, ratified in 1865, redefined what Justice meant insofar as slaves were concerned, providing a measure of justice unavailable to them previously. An originalist might argue that the passage of such an amendment was the proper way to redefine a provision of the Constitution whose meaning had changed, while those of the living document persuasion might argue that after the Civil War and victory by the north, there could be no Justice if slavery persisted. Today, this debate is better understood with the issues surrounding abortion, in which the Right to Privacy under the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment is the basis for granting a woman the right to have an abortion, despite the Constitution’s silence on the matter.

While great legal minds have offered treatises on interpretations of the Constitution, as a layman, my objective in this and future writings is to stress the importance of the meaning of words and their impact on society, particularly the words, “promote the general Welfare.”

Exactly what that means has been the subject of debate since the initial drafting of the Constitution, during which time Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, among others, asserted differing interpretations, most prominently in the Federalist Papers. In brief, though both men were ardent supporters of ratifying the Constitution, their differences centered on two of its provisions: Article 1 Section 8:1, referring to the power of Congress to tax, pay debts and “provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States;” and Amendment 10, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Hamilton had a more expansive view, believing that in its preface, “to promote the general Welfare” meant the Constitution gave the federal government the authorization to undertake and pay for anything that would promote the general welfare. Madison, on the other hand, believed the federal government could undertake and pay for only those functions that were specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Both men were among the Founding Fathers, yet both differed significantly on the role of the federal government. So when we look to the original intent behind the phrase, “promote the general Welfare,” where can one accurately place its meaning? Personally, I am persuaded by Hamilton’s arguments in the Federalist Papers, which might be capsulized by his writing in The Federalist 31 (Concerning the General Power of Taxation).

“A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.”

Thus, I believe the objective of the Constitution to “promote the general Welfare” means exactly that.

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