WE THE PEOPLE: Article 2: The meaning of Words – Promote the General Welfare

The debate stimulated by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the Federalist Papers over the role of the federal government continues unabated today and reflects itself in issues such as states’ rights, regulations, health care, limited versus big government, and taxation. You might recognize the current differences of opinion concerning each as those espoused separately by the Republican (more conservative) and Democratic (more liberal) Parties. So, relying on the Constitution, both parties have reached, and continue to support different interpretations of its meaning.

But, it should be clear that neither party has a monopoly on knowing the intent of the Founding Fathers in the drafting of the Constitution. So regardless of which side of the fence you stand, you should feel confident that a Founding Father is standing with you.

As noted in a previous paper, perhaps the most contentious issues derive from the preamble, “promote the general Welfare,” followed by Article 1 Section 8:1 granting Congress the power to tax, pay debts and “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Over time, the Supreme Court has generally accepted Hamilton’s more expansive interpretation, which, conceivably, explains why so many programs exist at the national level that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Nevertheless, the term, “promote the general welfare” can still mean something different depending upon your point of view. So, let’s break it down to its component parts to see if there is any unanimity of viewpoint.

The verb “promote” is defined as to further the progress of something; to support or actively encourage it; and its meaning is reinforced with related words such as, advocate, advance, help, foster, nurture, and stimulate.

The adjective “general” is defined as involving, applicable to, or affecting the whole with clarifying words such as common, global, overall or universal.

The noun, “welfare” is defined as health, happiness, prosperity and well-being in general.

In the context of the Constitution, some have described the words “general Welfare” as referring to the country, not its people. Of course, that makes no sense. After all, what is a country, if not a distinct national entity comprised of its residents. And how can one separate the welfare of a country from the welfare of its citizens? That might be plausible in a dictatorship where the country and its elites can do well while the rest of its populace suffers. But not in a democracy where a country’s well-being is very much dependent upon the well-being of its citizens. That is, if politicians wish to be re-elected.

However, aside from a failure to agree on the meaning of the phrase “promote the general Welfare” in the context of the Constitution, there should be no controversy over the definition of these words, individually. To put the phrase differently, we might say the objective of the Constitution, as stated in its preamble, is to advance the health, happiness, prosperity and well-being of its citizenry. Though there would be differences in opinion on how that might be achieved, I doubt that any Founding Father would oppose that definition as an objective.

Now, if you are of the Hamiltonian persuasion and want to promote the general Welfare, you might focus on one of the more important elements necessary to create well-being throughout the populace, namely the subject that is foremost in the public dialog today—health care. Clearly there can be no general well-being without a healthy population and that is not possible within the current organization of health care and the way it is delivered.

So, to all you Hamiltonians, it is time to reaffirm an objective of the Constitution to promote the general Welfare by demanding changes in the system of health care to provide quality care to all citizens at an affordable cost. If there is agreement on that goal, unhindered by ideology of the right or left, there is a solution to be found, and when necessary, to utilize Article 1 Section 8:1 of the Constitution calling upon Congress to tax…and “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”

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