General welfare clause Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

First clause of Article I, section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, authorizing Congress to collect taxes and spend money for the common defense and the general welfare.

There have been two major interpretations of the general welfare clause, which is also called the taxing and spending clauseTaxing and spending clause. James Madison made a narrow construction of the clause, so that it was a summary of congressional power to tax and spend money for those purposes specifically enumerated in section 8. In contrast, Alexander Hamilton and Justice Joseph Story argued that the clause was a separate grant of power, authorizing Congress to use broad discretion in taxing and spending for the general welfare.

Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, argued that the general welfare clause granted Congress broad spending and taxing powers.

(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Cabot Lodge)

In United States v. Butler[case]Butler, United States v.[Butler, United States v.] (1936), Justice Owen J. Roberts’s majority opinion cautiously endorsed most of the Hamilton/Story position on the general welfare clause. The next year, in Steward Machine Co. v. Davis[case]Steward Machine Co. v. Davis[Steward Machine Co. v. Davis] and Helvering v. Davis[case]Helvering v. Davis[Helvering v. Davis], the Supreme Court expanded on Butler in sustaining the constitutionality of the Social Security Act. Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo’s two majority opinions emphasized the idea that Congress had broad authority to determine which policies promote the welfare of the nation. In South Dakota v. Dole[case]South Dakota v. Dole[South Dakota v. Dole] (1987), the Court allowed Congress to withhold federal funds for the purpose of putting pressure on states to maintain a uniform drinking age, because the policy was “reasonably calculated to advance the general welfare.” The general welfare clause usually overlaps with the commerceCommerce, regulation of clause. Given the Court’s expansive definition of commerce, it is unlikely that the Court will ever overturn a federal statute as contrary to the general welfare clause.

Commerce, regulation of

New Deal

Taxing and spending clause

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