To Promote General Welfare

Both the Preamble and Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution call upon the federal government to "promote the general welfare." By extension, "we the people" are urged to promote the general welfare as well. We may disagree as to what the general welfare requires, but the framers hoped that we would accept this principle as being essential to the preservation of freedom.

The General Welfare: The American Tradition

The General Welfare: The Federalist Papers

Federalist 26: Alexander Hamilton

The citizens of America have too much discernment to be argued into anarchy. And I am much mistaken, if experience has not wrought a deep and solemn conviction in the public mind, that greater energy of government is essential to the welfare and prosperity of the community.

Federalist #26: Full Text

Federalist 41: James Madison

Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States," amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defence or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury; or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms "to raise money for the general welfare." But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied by signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of 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, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.

Federalist 41: Full Text

Federalist 45: James Madison

Is it too early for politicians to presume on our forgetting that the public good, the real welfare of the great body of the people, is the supreme object to be pursued; and that no form of government whatever has any other value than as it may be fitted for the attainment of this object. Were the plan of the convention adverse to the public happiness, my voice would be, Reject the plan. Were the Union itself inconsistent with the public happiness, it would be, Abolish the Union. In like manner, as far as the sovereignty of the States cannot be reconciled to the happiness of the people, the voice of every good citizen must be, Let the former be sacrificed to the latter.

Federalist 45: Full Text

The Federalist Papers: By Number and Topic

The following is the Library of Congress online edition of The Federalist Papers , which is arranged by Number and alphabetically by topic:

  • The Federalist Papers (By Number and Topic)

    The General Welfare: Presidential Appeals

    Appeals to the general welfare and the common good did not end with the Federalist Papers. Presidents have invoked the principle throughout our history.


    The General Welfare and Public Issues

    The "General Welfare" is not merely an abstract political principle to It is the vision that ought to guide our response to every problem facing us . That is what we intend to encourage on this page of the Civic Values Web Site. As issues emerge, we will use this unique medium to examine how the "general welfare" might apply.

    We begin with the Republican Contract and the Federal Budget

    Next is Welfare Reform

    Others will follow.


    The Social Contract Project and the General Welfare

    The Institute for the Study of Civic Values is helping neighborhood organizations in Philadelphia negotiate community social contracts with government, local businesses, and human service agencies that define mutual responsibilities to "promote the general welfare" in community development, neighborhood security, education, and economic opportuity.

    The papers that follow describe how this process works. Included is a "Block Club Social Contract" that the Institute has helped civic groups throughout the City develop for use in their neighborhoods.

    The Social Contract Project Papers

    If you wish to learn more about how to participate in this program, send e-mail directly to Ed Schwartz at the Institute for the Study of Civic Values describing the project you have in mind:

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