“Promote the General Welfare”

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We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Over at The Washington Post, historian J.M. Opal reflects on this often overlooked phrase in the preamble to the United States Constitution and suggests that its application might provide a way forward.

Here is a taste of his piece “How the Constitution can help reclaim government for all of us“:

The impeachment process calls our attention to the Founders’ fear of government gone wrong. As we start a new year, we remember all their warnings and safeguards against unscrupulous men in high places.

Perhaps their wisdom from 1787 will help us turn the page on Donald Trump in 2020. To fully recover from his abusive reign, however, we’ll also need to recall our pro-government traditions, starting with the pledge in the Constitution’s preamble to “promote the general Welfare.”

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.

Read the rest here.