Constitution 101: A General Government for Limited Purposes

If you delve into the ratification of the Constitution, you will often see the federal government referred to as the “general government.”

This terminology tells us a great deal about how the founding generation understood the role of the government it created, and its relationship to the states and the people.

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines the word “general” as “Relating to a whole class or body of men, or a whole kind of any being,” or “Publick; comprising the whole.”

We see the term early on in Article III of the Articles of Confederation.

The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare.” [Emphasis added]

Being “general” in nature, the federal government created by the Constitution was limited to objects that involve the “whole body” of the Union. This was understood to encompass basically two arenas – foreign relations and trade. That left most power in the hands of the state governments. A general government would have no authority to interfere with state policy, “police powers,” or the rights and liberties of the people.

During the New York ratifying convention, John Jay explained the boundary between the state governments and the federal government this way.

What are the objects of our state legislatures? Innumerable things of small moment occupy their attention; matters of a private nature, which require much minute and local information. The objects of the general government are not of this nature. They comprehend the interests of the states in relation to each other, and in relation to foreign nations.” [Emphasis added]

On February 27, 1788, in a message to the Massachusetts Legislature communicating the work of the Federal Convention, Governor John Hancock put it this way.

The objects of the proposed Constitution are, defence against external enemies, and the promotion of tranquility and happiness amongst the States.”

James Madison provided a more specific description of the role of the federal government in relation to that of the state governments in Federalist #45. He made it absolutely clear that the general government was intended to exercise a very limited role and the states would retain control over most objects.

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce; with which the last the power of taxation will for the most part be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.” [Emphasis added]

The “lives, liberties and properties of the people” and the “internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State” encompass virtually everything you can imagine. Healthcare, marriage, workplace safety, environmental control, education, civil liberties, crime, consumer protection and almost every other policy you can think of that actually impacts your day-to-day life should fall under state control.

Under the system established by the Constitution, you should barely even realize the federal government exists.

But Americans have completely abandoned their constitutional system. Today, the federal government involves itself in all of these areas and more. It dictates your health care plan, how much water you can have in your toilet and what kind of light bulb you can screw into your fixtures. Americans have even federalized sex.

In a letter to Gideon Granger dated Aug. 13, 1800, Thomas Jefferson warned about vesting too much authority in the central government.

Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single [federal] government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens and…will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder, and waste.”

His words certainly proved prophetic.

Tags: , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: