The Welfare of the People?

This is an odd bit, occasioned by thinking about the state motto of Missouri: “Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto” (which they translate as “Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.”

What did they mean by “welfare”? Since this motto was adopted in 1820, when the government was not involved in handouts to people, it could not have been what we now call “welfare.” In fact, the modern use of the word as state-provided assistance comes from an attempt to package this concept with a word that appears in the Constitution: “… to promote the general welfare.”

That adoption was done in the lifetime of the person who created the Missouri state seal, when it became a state in 1820/1821. But where was the Latin line from, and what does it mean, really? It traces back to the Roman writer Cicero, and is part of this line:

‘Regio imperio duo sunto, iique <a> praeeundo iudicando consulendo praetores iudices consules appellamino. Militiae summum ius habento, nemini parento. Ollis salus populi suprema lex esto.’

The last part of this translates to: “In the field they [the magistrates] shall hold the supreme military power ; they shall be subject to no one ; the safety of the people shall be their highest law.Note that this deals with national security, not what we now call “welfare” — and it confirms this with the reference to military power. This translates to a different part of the preamble to the Constitution, the part that “provides for the common defense”:

We the People of the United States, in Order 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To make this a bit clearer, the Constitution follows up with a clarification on welfare in Article I, Section 8:”… the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” — in other words, at the state level, not handouts to needy individuals.

This word has been tortured by progressives in the last century to inject the federal government into those affairs, much as “commerce among the several states” is now interpreted to include a lemonade stand in your own front yard. We had many thousands of charities that took care of the needy and sick, including entire hospitals; now the US federal, state and local governments have largely put them out of business (at great taxpayer expense), leaving charities to focus on largely leftist political activity. In Los Angeles five years ago a pastor who was taking care of hundreds of homeless people for about $100k per year was shut down by a new agency of the City of Los Angeles, which now expends [edit] a tremendously larger amount of money[/edit] on the same homeless population and are demanding a budget increase.

[KDH comment on the edit: My notes from radio reports at the time, a few years ago, I cannot now substantiate with current LA budget numbers. I’m trying to isolate the money involved here, and of course news-link rot is a factor.  So I’ve modified the comment.)

The US, over the past 80 years, has done this on a gigantic scale, replacing private charities (usually, but not always, religious) with government agencies costing many times as much.  Moreover, the ones supporting the private charities did so by choice.

Do you think you could convince Missouri to change their motto from “welfare” to the more correct “safety”? Good luck: their official state animal is the mule.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • American freedom diminishes in direct proportion to how braindead and cowardly American “conservatives” are. If you’re man enough, check out who really runs America. You disgrace our Forefathers in allowing this to happen. Pussie asses.

  • Welcome, Mr. Fricke, and thank you for your detailed comment.

    I use “Salud!” myself, sometimes as a greeting, sometimes in response to a sneeze in the Spanish style. In that instance, a translation of “health” would be closest, though I completely agree with you that it encompasses more than that. The Founders’ notion of it would be somewhat different from Cicero’s, I expect, as “liberty” would be an odd inclusion for a populace that was around one-half slaves if I remember correctly. But liberty, indeed, was a crucial element to the framers of the Constitution.

    There is little to argue with in your post, and I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of it … though your opening surprises me. I described “safety” as “more correct” than the current understanding of welfare as being handouts from the government. But I readily agree that everything in your last list could be substituted, even in combination. (This translation I quoted was not mine, by the way.)

    But one item in your list, “general welfare,” is part of a large concept, and yet Missouri (and many court cases, now) translate or implicitly accept a translation of “salus” as that item only. Hence the language confusion.

    I defer to your knowledge of Latin, and your statements accord with my own understanding, but to say that “salus” merely = the modern conception of “welfare” (as government transfers of wealth) is wrong, and that was my point. I think you’d agree with that. Correct?

    As an aside, most of the comment activity is on LiveJournal (link at top right), which for this post was:

    You are certainly welcome there as well.

    ==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Aaron Fricke

    Mr. DeHavelle,

    Respectfully, your reading of Cicero’s Treatise on Laws is quite wrong.

    Cicero begins this section with the specific aim of articulating “a few of the legal maxims that bear on this branch of laws [pertaining to the conduct of magistrates.]” Magistrates are keepers and administrators of civil law and order. They are specifically opposed to and apart from military leaders, and it is to make this distinction that he presents the Maxim, “Salus populi, suprema lex esto.” This maxim of law has been cited by moral philosophers, political economists and jurisprudential scholars for millennia, and precisely in this way. Cicero first presents that maxim that magistrates should be just, and justly obeyed.

    “Let all authorities be just, and let them be honestly obeyed by the people without hesitation. Let the magistrate restrain disobedience and sedition in citizens, by fine, imprisonment, and corporal chastisement. If there be an equal or greater power, and the people think the adjudication unjust, let them lawfully appeal thereto. If the magistrate shall have decided, and past sentence ]illegally, let there be a public appeal in a higher Court respecting the penalty and fine imposed . . . .”

    He then goes on to articulate the maxims relating to various kinds of civil magistrates and contrasts them and their roles with the maxims of generals in times of war.

    Then, referring again to the proper role of magistrates, he says, “Let two magistrates be invested with sovereign authority, and be entitled prætors, judges, or consuls, in respect of presiding, judging, or counselling, according to the nature of the case. Let them [i.e., the civil magistrates] have absolute authority over the army, for the [salus] of the people is the supreme law. This magistracy should not be determined in less than ten years—regulating the duration by the annual law.”

    This was not a throw away line. Salus is an ancient concept and it the maxim, “salus populi” was well know and understood in its time. Salus has no exact equivalent in English, but is best described as “welfare, safety and prosperity,” or “wholeness of well-being.” It is the root of words like salute, salutary and salubrious, which bear this same meaning. “Salus” was the most common Roman greeting for many centuries, and today the root of wishes and toasts like “Salud” and “Salute’ ” and the like. To say, “Salus!” to another person was to wish them a “good life, health, safety, prosperity” etc.

    Salus has nothing to do with “providing for the common defense,” and if at all, only indirectly, as a person cannot be said to have salus if they are being invaded.

    “Salus populi, suprema lex esto” means, simply, that the raison d’être for all just systems of regulation and governance is Salus. That is, the reason we have any law at all is to better provide for the “welfare, safety and prosperity” of the people. Magistrates have absolute authority over the army because armies are pure power, and their principle concern and task is exerting control over populations through force, “keeping the peace” so to speak. Armies are not concerned with salus, but, ostensibly, they do their work so that the civil law can function orderly and peacefully to promote salus, which, again, is the object of any and all law.

    Salus is why we have governments of any kind. Innumerable forms and systems of government have been employed over the past 10,000 years or so, and not all had even an implicit concern for salus. The Romans, as far as Cicero was concerned, and most western governments since, have at some point explicitly acknowledged that salus is their overarching aim, i.e., the supreme law, i.e., the law that trumps all other laws, the law the all lesser laws are to be judged.

    Our Founding Fathers restated the maxim of “salus populi” in the Preamble to the Constition, “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.”

    The Founders are simply, succinctly, deftly and explicitly saying that, in their Federalist conception of the United States, the reason they are creating the Constitution is to serve “justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare, and liberty.” That is salus in a nutshell.