18th-Century Definitions: "General Welfare"

While looking through a copy of Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language (published in 1755), one can find a number of interesting definitions that have broad-reaching effects on public policy. Here’s two that are quite relevant these days:


1. Comprehending many species or individuals; not special.
3. Not restrained by narrow or distinctive limitations
5. Public; comprising the whole


1. Happiness; success; prosperity

Clearly, these definitions, Constitutionally-speaking, are far different than what the politicians and pundits tell us. The “general Welfare” clause, as stated in the Tenth Amendment Center’s 10-4 Pledge for the Constitution, was actually meant as a limit on power – not an excuse to expand it:

The phrase, “general Welfare,” in Article I, Section 8 does not authorize Congress to enact any laws it claims are in the “general Welfare” of the United States. The phrase sets forth the requirement that all laws passed by Congress in Pursuance of the enumerated powers of the Constitution shall also be in the general Welfare of the United States. This was affirmed by James Madison when he wrote: “With respect to the 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.”