Public charity against Constitution’s spirit

Walter E. Williams

Last week, President Bush promised the nation that the federal government will pay for most of the costs of repairing hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, adding, “There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.”

There’s no question that New Orleans and her sister Gulf Coast cities have been struck with a major disaster, but should our constitution become a part of the disaster?

You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” Let’s look at it.
In February 1887, President Grover Cleveland, upon vetoing a bill appropriating money to aid drought-stricken farmers in Texas, said, “I find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and the duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

President Cleveland added, “The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.”

President Cleveland vetoed hundreds of congressional spending measures during his two-term presidency, often saying, “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.”

But Cleveland wasn’t the only president who failed to see charity as a function of the federal government. In 1854, after vetoing a popular appropriation to assist the mentally ill, President Franklin Pierce said, “I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity.”

To approve such spending, argued Pierce, “would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.”

In 1796, Rep. William Giles of Virginia condemned a relief measure for fire victims, saying that Congress didn’t have a right to “attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require.”

A couple of years earlier, James Madison, the father of our constitution, irate over a $15,000 congressional appropriation to assist some French refugees, said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Here’s my question: Were the nation’s founders, and some of their successors, callous and indifferent to human tragedy?

Or, were they stupid and couldn’t find the passages in the Constitution that authorized spending “on the objects of benevolence?”

Some people might say, “Aha! They forgot about the Constitution’s general welfare clause!”

Here’s what James Madison said: “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

Thomas Jefferson explained, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”

In 1828, South Carolina Sen. William Drayton said, “If Congress can determine what constitutes the general welfare and can appropriate money for its advancement, where is the limitation to carrying into execution whatever can be effected by money?”

Don’t get me wrong about this. I’m not being too critical of President Bush or any other politician.

There’s such a broad ignorance or contempt for constitutional principles among the American people that any politician who bore truth faith and allegiance to the Constitution would commit political suicide.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at: wwilliam@gmu.edu