This clause has deep roots in European statecraft, according to which the sovereign took care of his subjects in return for their fealty. In the 18th century, the general welfare, or salus populi, took on the more positive spirit of the Enlightenment. The goal of human society was not just survival but also happiness, the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel noted in 1758, and so governments should positively promote “a true and solid felicity” within their countries.
Promoting the general welfare could mean building roads or schools with tax money. It might encourage ingenuity through patents and copyrights or foster public health with quarantines and regulations. And it sometimes required the public to overrule the selfish “rights” of careless or ruthless individuals.
Far from rejecting this tradition, the American revolutionaries gave it a more democratic cast. As Pennsylvania’s new constitution of 1776 put it, governments were made for the “common benefit” of the people, “and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men.” In a republic, the population-at-large rather than any nobility or priesthood was the privileged order — the group deserving of the government’s care. Vermont used similar language the next year, in the modern world’s first constitution prohibiting slavery.
The basic idea reached from the high ground of constitutionalism down to the pedestrian rules of municipal order. Every town and city in the early United States kept a long list of rules and regulations to protect the public from flammable materials, impure products and price-gouging merchants. Courts upheld these rules.
To be sure, the framers of the U.S. Constitution sought to restrain the democratic radicalism of the day along with the scope of federal power, which is why they left most day-to-day governance to the states. But even those who read the Constitution strictly, such as Thomas Jefferson, never doubted that governments should try to make life happier and healthier for the populations they served.
In his second inaugural address from 1805, Jefferson argued that peacetime governments should invest in canals, roads, manufactures, education and “other great objects” of an enlightened age. He saw the state and federal governments as partners in this effort. His successor, James Madison, signed an 1813 bill to support smallpox vaccination. This gave rise to a National Vaccine Institution, dedicated to the “general welfare of our fellow-citizens.”
In short, the general welfare was a flexible, commonplace and ascendant principle in the early republic. As a typical Jeffersonian from Pennsylvania put it, government was “bound to promote by all possible means the welfare of their constituencies.” In the wake of an economic crisis in 1819, that conviction led to new movements for public schools and infrastructures in many states and for an “American System” of economic development at the federal level.
So what happened to salus populi? Why did it recede even as other traditions from the Founding era lived on?
The fate of the National Vaccine Institution is instructive. In 1821, the overworked doctor in charge accidentally sent live smallpox samples to North Carolina, causing an outbreak. Whereupon a new generation of “states’ rights” southerners — enriched by the rising cotton economy — jumped on this and other efforts by the federal government to help the people it represented.
The United States was not a unified “nation,” seethed one South Carolina judge and planter in an enormously influential pamphlet from 1827. It was a loose confederation of states, each of which had to defend the “individual owners” from the “general welfare.” He wanted power to be held exclusively by people like him, whose goal was to produce cotton at low cost and then to sell the bales to British factory owners. He could not bear the thought of a public good that included his workers, whom he considered his chattels.
Wherever slavery reigned, public safety was a matter of protecting free whites from unfree blacks. Slave country was an eternal frontier, a low-grade war zone that bred a violent sense of individualism and a deep distrust of society. And its spread across the new Cotton Kingdom — a rebirth of slavery that the Founders had not foreseen — buried any tradition that favored the social over the selfish, the public over the private.
Although slavery was destroyed by fire and blood in the 1860s, it left behind a thin, all-white sense of “the people” that has undercut our sense of the common good ever since. Class and ethnic divisions amplified by runaway capitalism and fears of mass immigration have also eroded our sense of belonging to the same public — and thus our enthusiasm for laws made in its name.
From the 1880s to the present, moreover, huge corporations have defined themselves as individuals who are free to pursue profits as they wish. The courts often agree, enabling these private actors to run roughshod over any welfare besides their own.
In this sense, the Progressive Era and New Deal are exceptions within a 200-year drift away from salus populi and toward a constitutional regime based on laissez-faire liberty and small government. Indeed, the modern conservative argument is that government is the problem, at least when it tries to help rather than to punish.
The basic message over the past 40 years has been that there is no society, no public good, no general welfare. Everyone is on their own, “free” to take whatever they can. Donald Trump has adapted these Reaganesque ideals to a more nihilistic age, in which there are only winners and losers, bullies and suckers.
Pulling out of this moral tailspin will, of course, require new policies designed for the general good. Without a coherent logic rooted in our revolutionary past, however, such efforts will wander in the political wilderness, easy prey for Trump-appointed judges who will claim that our Constitution does not allow government for the people.
But the general welfare clause is right there in the preamble, saying otherwise. Like the Constitution’s mechanisms for impeachment, it is a note passed down from another age, a little bit of wisdom to light our way.