General Welfare Clause

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The "general welfare clause" of the United States Constitution is found in Article I Section 8, which begins:

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 debate soon began over the limits which should be imposed on the Constitution's intent for the term "general welfare." James Madison, debated the question of a "bounty" (which today would probably be called a subsidy) to be paid to fishermen that would effectively reverse a tariff on salt that they needed. He said:

If Congress can apply money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may establish teachers in every State, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public Treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may undertake the regulation of all roads, other than post roads.

Madison's examples were intended to astonish his readers. In the subsequent two centuries, the federal government has interpreted the general welfare clause to permit it to do every one of the items Madison mentioned, to one degree or another.

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