“General Government” vs. “Federal Government”


Understanding “General Government” vs. “Federal Government”

As used on this website, the term “General Government” refers solely to the new government the Constitution created, consisting of Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court, as distinct from “the federal government” or “the federal system”, which consists of the General Government, the States, and WE THE PEOPLE. (footnote 1) This is a clarifying usage common among the Founding Fathers. For instance:

• “[I]t is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws.”
The Federalist No. 14 (James Madison).

• “I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the[ir] authorities[.]”
The Federalist No. 17 (Alexander Hamilton).

• “Is the aggregate power of the general government greater than ought to have been vested in it?”
The Federalist. No. 41 (James Madison).

• “The second class of powers lodged in the general government consist of those which regulate the intercourse with foreign nations[.]”
The Federalist. No. 42 (James Madison).

• See also, e.g., THE GENUINE INFORMATION, DELIVERED TO THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MARYLAND, RELATIVE TO THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE GENERAL CONVENTION, HELD AT PHILADELPHIA, IN 1787, BY LUTHER MARTIN, ESQUIRE, ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF MARYLAND, AND ONE OF THE DELEGATES IN THE SAID CONVENTION (29 November 1787), quoted in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Max Farrand, Editor (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966), Volume 3, at 194, 195, 203, 204, 205, 206, 207, 208, 209, 210, 211, 212, 213, 214, 215, 220, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225. Since then, the term has often appeared in opinions of the Supreme Court. E.g., Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 265 (1886); In re Rahrer, 140 U.S. 545, 554 (1891); House v. Mayes, 219 U.S. 270, 282 (1911).

WE THE PEOPLE “ordain[ed] and establish[ed]” the Constitution not just to set up a General Government within a federal system. Beyond that, they sought to achieve six specific goals: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. (footnote 2) And not for the opposite purpose in any particular. For “[a]ffirmative words are often, in their operation, negative of others than those affirmed; and in this case, a negative or exclusive sense must be given to them, or they have no operation at all”. (footnote 3) Surely, “[t]he doing of one thing which is authorized cannot be made the source of an authority to do another thing which there is no power to do”. (footnote 4) Moreover, WE THE PEOPLE never agreed to sacrifice any one of the Preamble’s goals in order supposedly to achieve the others, either.


1.) The Sword and Sovereignty: The Constitutional Principles of “the Militia of the several States”, Front Royal, Virginia CD ROM Edition 2012, by Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr., page 6.

2.) U.S. Const. preamble. The typeset version of The Constitution of the United States of America, Bicentennial Edition, House Document No. 94-539, 94th Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

3.) Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 174 (1803).

4.) Wilson v. New, 243 U.S. 332, 345 (1917).