Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hamilton and I agree on constitutional General Welfare

One of my favorite parts of a discussion with a GOP-ER is when her or she starts quoting the Federalist Papers, as if selected quotes were and are evidence of some constitutional intention of some Founding Father (s) ~ not true, I must tell them. 

In fact, the Federalist Papers were and are advertising for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and their irrelevancy went into effect the minute the Constitution was signed and President George Washington, with a stronger assist from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton than most people know, took up their positions in the Executive Branch of the newly formed government.

It is a bit of information that usually leaves them speechless.

But, it is the discovery of the Codification of the General Welfare in the Constitution by Hamilton, under Washington's watchful eye, that really irritates them to no end while, at the same time, making voting a straight Democratic ticket in November a no-brainer for me.

I totally and completely support the constitution Common Good!

The General Welfare Clause is mentioned twice in the U.S. Constitution: First, in the preamble and second, in the Article 1, Section 8.

The preamble reads
WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Article 1, Section 8 reads
The Congress shall have the Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. . .

(Please note in the preamble the word promote is used but in the Article/Section the word provide is used. I got caught up on that once in a discussion where the argument against mine — was that, based on the preamble, promoting was not providing and I accepted that argument without checking on it but ~ then I checked and I was correct, the Constitution provides for the General Welfare.)

Most of us know there was plenty of debate about every word in the Constitution and that we can all find as many Founding Fathers quotes as we’d like to bolster our own arguments from one side to the other just as they debated the issues from one side to another in their own time, but I believe there is a fairly straight line from the references of the General Welfare to settled law that demonstrates the law has been and can be interpreted broadly.

That line goes from the Constitution to its first implementer, the revered former President George Washington, whose right-hand man, Alexander Hamilton, was quite clear on his broad interpretation of the term without objection from his  (our) President, to the Supreme Court re U.S. vs. Butler when Justice Joseph Story supported a Hamiltonian reading of the clause on which the majority relied.
For Hamilton (also a big free market guy), no constitutional amendment was necessary to justify federal spending beyond these powers, provided that the funds were appropriated on behalf of the general welfare of the people, rather than the particular interests of a state or section.

In a report on manufactures, advocating for their encouragement (e.g. by bounties paid from surplus revenues amassed by tariff duties  —  His argument was based on the doctrine of “implied powers” in the Constitution, and on the application that Congress may do anything that can be made, through the medium of money, to subserve the “general welfare” of the United States  — doctrines that, through judicial interpretation, revolutionized the Constitution
The decisions of the presidents who believed that a constitutional amendment was required to expand the scope of the general welfare clause (namely Thomas Jefferson, Madison, and James Monroe) to put nation building above political theory and constitutional interpretation in their sanctioning of federal funding of certain public works projects ensured that Hamilton’s reading of the clause would prevail.

Hamilton was an interesting guy, he had personal flaws, for sure, but he believed deeply that the success of the country was as tied into the success of its People as a strong national government, a free market and a balance budget were.
He argued for a near-monarchy form of government but that’s okay, finding the middle for a new government was the challenge and no thoughts were off the table in the heated discussions leading to the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
He was also not known as a popular leader. When his passions were not involved he was known to be far-sighted and his judgment of men was excellent. But as Hamilton himself once said, his heart was ever the master of his judgment.
Nonetheless, Washington’s confidence in his ability and integrity is considered to be most significant. Chief Justice Marshall ranked him second to Washington alone. No judgment is more justly measured than Madison’s (in 1831): That he possessed intellectual powers of the first order, and the moral qualities of integrity and honor in a captivating degree, has been awarded him by a suffrage now universal. If his theory of government deviated from the republican standard he had the candor to avow it, and the greater merit of cooperating faithfully in maturing and supporting a system which was not his choice.
Born a British subject in the West Indies, his mother was forbidden remarriage following a divorce, his father’s business went broke, his mother died, he was left in the care of relatives, began working at the age of 12 and was largely self-taught. In 1772, friends made it possible for him to go to New York to complete his education. His studies were interrupted by the War of American Independence and a visit to Boston confirmed he should cast in his fortunes with the colonists, to our benefit.
In 1774-1775 he wrote two influential anonymous pamphlets which were attributed to John Jay and ranked high among the political arguments of the time. He won the interest of Washington by the bravery he displayed, joined Washington’s staff in March 1777 with the rank of Lt. Col. and served as his private secretary and confidential aide.

In 1780 he married Elizabeth Schuyler and became allied with one of the most distinguished families in New York, beginning the political efforts upon which his fame principally rests. In letters of 1779-1780 he correctly diagnosed the ills of the Confederation, suggesting with admirable prescience the necessity of centralization in its governmental powers; he was, indeed, one of the first to suggest adequate checks on the anarchic tendencies of the time. After a frustrating year in Congress in 1782-1783 he settled down to legal practice.
The call for the Annapolis Convention (1786) was Hamilton’s opportunity. A delegate from New York, he supported James Madison in inducing the Convention to exceed its delegated powers and summon the Federal Convention of 1787 at Philadelphia (himself drafting the call); he secured a place on the New York delegation; and, when his anti-Federal colleagues withdrew from the Convention, he used his great talents to secure the adoption of the Constitution and he signed the Constitution for his state.

Sheer will and reasoning could hardly be more brilliantly and effectively exhibited than they were by Hamilton in the New York convention of 1788, whose vote he won, against the greatest odds, for the ratification of the Constitution. It was the judgment of Chancellor James Kent, the justice of which can hardly be disputed, that all the documentary proof and the current observation of the time lead us to the conclusion that he surpassed all his contemporaries in his exertions to create, recommend, adopt and defend the Constitution of the United States.

When the new government was inaugurated, Hamilton became Secretary Treasury in Washington’s cabinet. Congress immediately referred to him a press of queries and problems, and there came from his pen a succession of papers that have left the strongest imprint on the administrative organization of the national government — two reports on public credit, upholding an ideal of national honor higher than the prevalent popular principles; a report on manufactures, advocating their encouragement (e.g. by bounties paid from surplus revenues amassed by tariff duties) — a famous report that has served ever since as a storehouse of arguments for a national protective policy; a report favoring the establishment of a national bank, the argument being based on the doctrine of “implied powers” in the Constitution and, finally, a vast mass of detailed work by which order and efficiency were given to the national finances.
The success of his financial measures was immediate.They did not, as is often but loosely said, create economic prosperity; but they did prop it, in an all-important field, with order, hope and confidence. His ultimate purpose was always the strengthening of the union.
His activity in the cabinet was by no means confined to the finances. He regarded himself, apparently, as premier, and sometimes overstepped the limits of his office in interfering with other departments. The heterogeneous character of the duties placed upon his department by Congress seemed in fact to reflect the English idea of its primacy. Hamilton’s influence was in fact predominant with Washington (so far as any man could have predominant influence.)
On the 31st of January 1795 Hamilton resigned his position as secretary of the treasury and returned to the practice of law in New York, leaving it for public service only in 1798-1800, when he was the active head, under Washington (who insisted that Hamilton should be second only to himself), of the army organized for war against France. But though in private life he remained the continual and chief adviser of Washington — notably in the serious crisis of the Jay Treaty, of which Hamilton approved. Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) was written for him by Hamilton.
No emphasis, however strong, upon the mere consecutive personal successes of Hamilton’s life is sufficient to show the measure of his importance in American history. That importance lies, to a large extent, in the political ideas for which he stood. His mind was eminently “legal.” He was the unrivalled controversialist of the time. His writings, which are distinguished by clarity, vigour and rigid reasoning, rather than by any show of scholarship — in the extent of which, however solid in character Hamilton’s might have been, he was surpassed by several of his contemporaries — are in general strikingly empirical in basis.

He drew his theories from his experiences of the Revolutionary period, and he modified them hardly at all through life. In his earliest pamphlets (1774-1775) he started out with the ordinary pre-Revolutionary Whig doctrines of natural rights and liberty; but the first experience of semi-anarchic states’-rights and individualism ended his fervor for ideas so essentially alien to his practical, logical mind, and they have no place in his later writings. The feeble inadequacy of conception, infirmity of power, factional jealousy, disintegrating particularism, and vicious finance of the Confederation were realized by many others; but none other saw so clearly the concrete nationalistic remedies for these concrete ills, or pursued remedial ends so constantly, so ably, and so consistently.
An immigrant, Hamilton had no ties; he was by instinct a continentalist or federalist. He wanted a strong union and energetic government that should rest as much as possible on the shoulders of the people and as little as possible on those of the state legislatures; that should have the support of wealth and class; and that should curb the states to such an “entire subordination” as nowise to be hindered by those bodies.

At these ends he aimed with extraordinary skill in all his financial measures. As early as 1776 he urged the direct collection of federal taxes by federal agents. From 1779 onward we trace the idea of supporting government by the interest of the propertied classes; from 1781 onward the idea that a not-excessive public debt would be a blessing in giving cohesiveness to the union: hence his device by which the federal government, assuming the war debts of the states, secured greater resources, based itself on a high ideal of nationalism, strengthened its hold on the individual citizen, and gained the support of property. In his report on manufactures his chief avowed motive was to strengthen the union. 

To the same end he conceived the constitutional doctrines of liberal construction, implied powers” and the general welfare, which were later embodied in the decisions of John Marshall. The idea of nationalism pervaded and quickened all his life and works. With one great exception, the dictum of Guizot is hardly an exaggeration, that “there is not in the Constitution of the United States an element of order, of force, of duration, which he did not powerfully contribute to introduce into it and to cause to predominate.”

The personal is political.


(* All information used here, mixed with my personal commentary, is, to my knowledge, gleaned from sources that allow the free use of their historical materials. Any primary sources utillized are noted below except for the Supremacy Clause link, that is purely informational.)
Michael R. Adamson, “Review of Theodore Sky, To Provide for the General Welfare: A History of the Federal Spending Power.” EH.Net Economic History Services, Jan 14 2005. URL:
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