Early in America’s formative years, government institutions were created according to the Federal charter defined by the Constitution. There was much debate over interpreting the Constitution’s enumerated powers given to government and the impact of national programs on the size of the Federal budget, taxes, protection of civil liberties, and maintaining national character. Jefferson saw the threat of unlimited taxes and social programs born from decisions made during 1791–1792 when he warned George Washington that Alexander Hamilton’s expansive interpretation of the Constitution’s General Welfare clause would give Congress virtually unlimited power. If Hamilton succeeded in establishing a precedent for national taxes to support the federal debt, national bank, expanded bureaucracies, and social programs, he argued, Congress would soon “take every thing under their management they should deem for the public welfare, and which is susceptible to the application of money.” There will be “no limits of their authority”. He considered the Constitution’s Welfare Clause as restricting tax power only to “pay for the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” The Constitution, he said, did not give Congress the authority to do “anything they please to provide for the general welfare,” and warned that expansively interpreting this provision would be “instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States and as they would be the sole judges of good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they pleased.” Jefferson was predicting that Congress could use Entitlement programs under the banner of general welfare to gain power and increase taxes.

James Madison supported Jefferson’s contention that the Constitution’s original intent was to prevent any sort of Entitlement programs that institutionalized “seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.” And he agreed that using taxes for income redistribution was prohibited by the Constitution. He wrote: to “take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare others . . . is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association—the guarantee to every one of his industry and fruits acquired by it.” Unequal property distribution was a natural condition Jefferson reasoned and “a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it.” Even well-intentioned programs to help the poor were prohibited, not only by Constitutional enumeration, but also by moral arguments made by Ben Franklin: “I fear giving mankind a dependence on any thing for support in age or sickness . . . doing so tends to . . . encourage idleness and prodigality, and thereby to promote and increase poverty, the very evil it was intended to cure.”

Jefferson warned that Alexander Hamilton’s plans would open Pandora’s box by allowing the Constitution’s General Welfare clause to create a “welfare state” with government’s role extending beyond protector of life and property into a coddling entity that beguiled Americans into abrogating their liberty. This encroachment began in the form of well-intentioned benevolence. In 1794, James Madison argued that a congressional bill to help French refugees with modest government funding violated the Constitution—even in the name of goodwill. Thirty-three years later, Colonel Davy Crockett spoke against a bill to help the widow of a naval officer: “We must not let our respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living to lead us into an act on injustice to the balance of the living. I will not attempt to prove Congress has no power to appropriate money as an act of charity. Every member on this floor knows it. We have rights as individuals, to give away as much of our money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.” His argument prevailed, and the proposal was rejected. However, Crockett, Congress’s poorest member, was the only one who gave charity to the widow.

Despite the Founders trying to hold to strict interpretations of the General Welfare clause, by 1835 the French philosopher, Alexander de Tocqueville, documented in his famous Democracy in America, that new “provident and mild” congressional programs were turning America’s 19th-century government into a sort of surrogate “parent” that kept its citizens “in perpetual childhood.” Americans wanted their government “to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances.” In this society, the Spirit of 1776 no longer existed, and all that remained was “to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.” Americans, Tocqueville wrote, were neglecting “their chief business, which is to remain their own masters.”

The Founders’ views of limited taxation and restricted spending gradually weakened until overturned by the 16th Amendment in 1913, to extend Congress’s taxing and spending authority beyond the Constitution’s original intent and eventually create a welfare state. Jefferson saw this coming and warned: “I hope our courts will never countenance the sweeping pretensions which have been set up under the words ‘general defense and public welfare’ . . . . They could not be so awkward in language as to mean, as we say, ‘all and some.’ And should this construction prevail, all limits to the federal government are done away . . . . I should consider more ominous than any thing than has occurred.”

We have the right as individuals to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money.

- Davy Crockett

How Entitlement Programs Undermine Virtue