Article One Section 8 of the United States Constitution states:

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 wording is somewhat ambiguous, however, specifically the word "to" the phrase "to pay the Debts...".

Does "to" go with "power", so that it means "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect Taxes ... and the power to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States"?

Or does the "to" mean "in order to", so that it's saying "The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes ... for the purpose of paying the Debts and providing for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States"?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • 1
    Does the wikipedia page cover it sufficiently, or would you like more research? The short form is: "Unclear, but case law isn't matching the likely original intent"
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 18:22
  • is there any doubt it is the latter? if it was the former, it would mean that Congress has the power to tax, not on the express condition that the funds be used to pay the debt, the common defense, or the general welfare. (What purpose then? To enrich themselves.)
    – user1873
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 20:03
  • @user1873 international aid? political campaigns are partially funded by the government. The fact that there is case law on it means they are doing something...
    – Razie Mah
    Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 20:56
  • because of the comma before the to, "power to pay debts" would probably be more grammatically correct, not that that sentence is very grammatically correct in the first place. Commented Feb 25, 2014 at 23:07
  • 1
    @Bobson Thanks, the Wikipedia article does satisfy me. It says that according to current case law, the general welfare clause is a grant of power to Congress. If you want to put a quote from the Wikipedia article as an answer, I'd be happy to accept it. Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 19:10

1 Answer 1


It's a good question, but there's no clear answer - it's been debated almost since it was written. The arguments can be broken down into two camps (all quotes from Wikipedia):

James Madison advocated for the ratification of the Constitution in The Federalist and at the Virginia ratifying convention upon a narrow construction of the clause, asserting that spending must be at least tangentially tied to one of the other specifically enumerated powers, such as regulating interstate or foreign commerce, or providing for the military, as the General Welfare Clause is not a specific grant of power, but a statement of purpose qualifying the power to tax.

Alexander Hamilton, only after the Constitution had been ratified, argued for a broad interpretation which viewed spending as an enumerated power Congress could exercise independently to benefit the general welfare, such as to assist national needs in agriculture or education, provided that the spending is general in nature and does not favor any specific section of the country over any other.

Up until 1936, the Madison viewpoint was the predominant one, but since then, case law has sided more and more towards the Hamiltonian. This is despite the fact that Madison was more involved in actually writing the clause, and is more likely to be an authoritative source on the original intent.

Proponents of the Madisonian view also point to Hamilton's limited participation in the Constitutional Convention, particularly during the time frame in which this clause was crafted, as further evidence of his lack of constructive authority.

In 1936, in United States v. Butler, the supreme court held that

[T]he [General Welfare] clause confers a power separate and distinct from those later enumerated, is not restricted in meaning by the grant of them, and Congress consequently has a substantive power to tax and to appropriate, limited only by the requirement that it shall be exercised to provide for the general welfare of the United States.

It later revisited and expanded on this decision in discussing Social Security (1935) and whether the government could withhold funds from states (1987). In summary, so long as the money gathered from taxes is being spent for "the general welfare" (however Congress defines it), then Congress is permitted to impose the tax.

In short, originally it was (probably) intended narrowly, but it has since been interpreted broadly by the courts.

  • 1
    Thanks. Could you include a bit more information about what the current case law says, like the specific cases which have decided that the clause is an additional enumerated power of Congress? Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 19:53
  • @KeshavSrinivasan - How's that?
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 20:12
  • Recommend formatting to make the distinction between the arguments more explicit. Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:16
  • Though, on a second review of the question, it seems focused on the grammatical differences in reading the clause at ratification and now, for the transition from "empowering the government to collect monies" to "paying debts." It isn't asking about the General Welfare portion of the clause, which would be where the Hamiltonian V Madison distinction comes into play. Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 16:51

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