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Jefferson, Publius, and Franklin on Limited Government

2 January 2010

It’s self-evident, but perhaps we need to be reminded.  Here is the text of Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U. S. Constitution:

The Congress shall have 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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

The “general welfare” clause is commonly interpreted by statists to give Congress the green light to do virtually anything it likes, including (notably) to assert its arbitrary authority over citizens’ private property by forcing them to purchase something they do not wish to own, or something in a form other than what they might prefer.  And those who contest Congress’ right to do such things are cast, in this upside-down world of unfettered liberalism, as the political extremists.

Today’s lamentable state of affairs was predictable.  Here is Thomas Jefferson himself, commenting prophetically on the “general welfare” clause:

They are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare…. [G]iving a distinct and independent power to do any act they please which may be good for the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless. It would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and, as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.

In 221 years, we have lost the fervor of political revolutionaries, the ardent yearning for freedom that so characterized the Founders.  Whereas in former days the burden of proof lay upon the federal government to justify itself on constitutional grounds, now we seem to give Congress the benefit of the doubt, and the burden of proof lies upon a small cadre of “extremist right-wingers” – Madisonians, really – to show that Congress’ commitment to limited government is but a shell of its former self.  And the response of the masses seems to be a collective yawn.

Hence Benjamin Franklin’s tragic prophecy to a lady who asked what sort of nation was being born in those days:  “a republic, if you can keep it.”


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