The Founding Fathers Didn’t Know the Constitution!

Obama Administration

I love this (and Ezra Klein, who comes up with the best stuff):

See Rick Ungar, “Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance -In 1798.”

In July of 1798, Congress passed – and President John Adams signed – “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.

This is a fascinating thing I don’t think I’ve heard about before. The new country depended very much on the private merchant fleet for trade, but the seamen were always getting hurt and coming down with diseases. Sick merchant seamen were bad for the economy. So the 5th Congress established government-run maritime hospitals for the seamen, paid by a payroll tax on the seamen’s wages. And seamen were required to pay into their health care system or they weren’t allowed to work as seamen.

Do read the whole article, and also Greg Sargent’s follow up. This absolutely destroys the argument that the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have approved of government-run health care as a public good because it wasn’t explicitly discussed in the Constitution.

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  1. biggerbox  •  Jan 22, 2011 @1:13 am

    I have a picture in my head of Nelson Muntz in britches, waistcoat, and a tri-corner hat, pointing at Sarah Palin (and all those Republican Attorneys General who filed suit against the bill) and saying “HAW-haw!”

  2. Porlock Junior  •  Jan 22, 2011 @2:52 am

    Since the Constitution is on the table here, a small blog-whoring aside: Some Constitutional questions that I posted here in response to Maha’s request for questions that might be incorporated in a quiz have now been edited, with answers, on my long-dormant blog.

  3. Chief  •  Jan 22, 2011 @8:27 am

    Not being an attorney, I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that this Act for the Relief of Sick & Disabled Seamen cuts off the legs of the Tea Partiers arguments and should be a significant part of the defense of the PPACA.

  4. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 22, 2011 @9:10 am

    Well, it’s not like insurance was a new concept even then. Lloyd’s of London had been around since the late 17th Century, and they were a johnny-come-lately by the time of the Revolution. Marine insurance had already been around a long, long time. And, in a country with limitless natural resources, but with a limited population willing to go to sea, VERY dangerous work, this made a ton of sense.
    Plus, it was John Adams. You can’t find too many Founding Fathers much more ‘foundier’ than him, the guy before him, and the guy after him.
    I wonder what that idiot Cooch in VA and the other lemming AG’s will have to say about this? I think he’ll try to find some other BS. Bank on it.
    But, in the meantime – HAR–DEE-HAR-HAR!!!

    WAAAAAAAAAY OT – Keith has left MSNBC!
    Last night was his last broadcast.
    Keith, and maha, and other internes sites, were the only things that kept me sane during the mis-Reign of Little Boots and his War Criminals.
    I haven’t watched Keith in a while. Not because I didn’t want to, but because Cablevision (spit 3 X’s, and 3 X’s more) took them off basic and left me with CNN and, of COURSE FOX (spit a million X’s, and repeat), and the TV in the room my PC is in doesn’t have a converter box. The TV in the livingroom has expanded basic, so my parents can watch a greater array of channels – usually tuned to Turner Classics. But if there’s nothing on there, or nothing else of interest, they’ll turn to MSNBC. My Mom loves Keith, but especially Rachel, and if they’re watching MSNBC I sometimes join them.
    And this is what I find exasperating, but fascinating: that FOX and CNN are on everywhere, but people have to pay extra in many areas to get MSNBC or they don’t get it, and yet there’s no mention of that when they talk about how much higher FOX’s ratings are than MSNBC. Well, yeah – you’re comparing apples to oranges. In many respect it’s like comparing CBS’s ratings with HBO’s. Two different worlds.
    Here we are working to maintain some sense of Net Neutrality, when we don’t even have TV Neutrality.
    I’ll miss Keith. I’d like thank him for what he’s done for the last 8 years. After they took Donohue off the air, it took guts for Keith to come on and do what he did. And the fact that Rachel (the best newperson on the air, BY FAR!) and Ed have shows, is due to Keith. And I’m sure it’s because of those three (but really Keith and Rachel) that cable companies made people pay more for quality news and opinion than the imbecilic prattling, jabbering and howling on FOX, or the senile meanderings of Wolf and the ‘Worst Political Team on Television.’
    Good luck, Keith.
    We wish you nothing but the best.
    ‘Thanks for all the fish.’

    PLEASE COME BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. maha  •  Jan 22, 2011 @9:24 am

    c u n d gulag — Your version of Cablevision dropped MSNBC? That’s peculiar. I still get it on Cablevision here in Westchester.

  6. c u n d gulag  •  Jan 22, 2011 @10:23 am

    maha – are you on ‘expanded basic service’ with a converter box? If you also get HBO or any of the other pay channels, you usually get that expanded service automatically. The newer digital TV’s don’t require a box, but do require you to pay the cable thieves for expanded or pay channels anyway, or you won’t get them.
    Our set in the living room has expanded basic via the box. The set in my Mom’s former music studio doesn’t have a box because they charge extra for every additional one, and my folks are on a fixed income, and I’m unemployed (and my benefits are soon to run out). So, in this room, I’m MSNBC-less and can’t watch. But I can watch all of the CNN (which I’ll have on if there’s breaking news) and FOX (you couldn’t pay me to watch it) I want.

  7. erinyes  •  Jan 22, 2011 @10:24 am

    Maha, I travel weekly in my job, and many of the hotels I stay in don’t offer MSNBC, but they all offer CNN and FOX. I’v often wondered if its because of the content, thankfully they all seem to offer Comedy Central, so I can at least get my liberal “fix” with Colbert and Stewart.
    Besides that:

    I hope Keith pops up somewhere else, perhaps on Comedy Central.

    In regards to your post, one of my first gigs out of commercial diving school was harvesting sea urchins (uni for sushi) off Catalina and San Clemente Is. in So Cal, not much money, but the adventure was spectacular. The boat I worked on was a “documented vessel”, and the crew was covered by that insurance (I believe).I got a finger full of ‘urchin spines once (the pain was hellish, and lasted for months), but went to a local doctor under my wife’s retail clerk’s insurance, so I never used the crew insurance.
    There was a fisherman’s hospital in San Pedro back then, I’m not sure if its still there, since the fishing industry declined in the 80’ and 90’s, and I worked in it back in ’74.

  8. Jennifer  •  Jan 22, 2011 @12:03 pm

    Republican rebuttals will be:
    1) It’s not the same thing. (yes, separate argument)
    2) You didn’t have to be a seaman, so it was not an individual mandate. Unger refutes this by saying you don’t have to seek employment at all so you aren’t mandated to have insurance but I thought PPACA required all people to buy insurance. So I’m betting Republicans with use this one a lot.
    3) They used seamen as recruits in time of war, so they were really mandating military insurance (totally made up, but sounds good).
    4) We can’t really know what the Founding Fathers were thinking back then because they are dead.
    Did I miss anything? You know that this “revelation” will not change their stance because no truths will.

  9. maha  •  Jan 22, 2011 @12:55 pm


    1. Answered nicely by Ungar, see also Greg Sargent’s follow up, in which he discusses this issue with Adam Rothman, an associated professor of history at Georgetown University. Rothman said,

    “It’s a good example that the post-revolutionary generation clearly thought that the national government had a role in subsidizing health care,” Rothman says. “That in itself is pretty remarkable and a strong refutation of the basic principles that some Tea Party types offer.”

    “You could argue that it’s precedent for government run health care,” Rothman continues. “This defies a lot of stereotypes about limited government in the early republic.”

    2. Yes, I saw that, too, but Ezra Klein argues that the merchant seaman payroll tax “was, in essence, a regulation against a form of inactivity: You were not allowed to not do something, in this case, pay for sailor’s health insurance.” The “inactivity” thing looms large in constitutional arguments against the mandate.

    3. The war thing is bogus; this was done because a lack of healthy merchant seamen were holding up economic growth. Also, FYI, “mariners actually employed in the sea service of any citizen or merchant within the United States” were explicitly exempt from militia duty by the Militia Act of 1792. So a civilian merchant seaman was exempt from being called into military service, unless they got him while he was on land in between seafaring gigs.

    Fun fact — both the merchant fleet and the U.S. Navy were racially integrated in those days. (I believe free African American men made up the majority of the merchant fleet, in fact, because it was one of the few jobs they could get.) I don’t think that relates to anything, but it’s one of those things you don’t expect to find in those days. The Navy wasn’t segregated until some time after the Civil War.

    Quickie quiz — How bad of a nerd am I that I actually know what’s in the Militia Act of 1792?

    4. Ah-HAH. Then how do we know they weren’t Communists?

  10. Jennifer  •  Jan 22, 2011 @12:09 pm

    How about these:
    5) This was “accident insurance” not health care.
    6) Our health care is now too expensive to view it as the same situation.
    7) Our work is not as dangerous, so government needs to get the h*** out of our pockets and our private lives.

  11. maha  •  Jan 22, 2011 @12:58 pm

    5. But the 1798 Act actually established government-run hospitals. Medical care was administered by doctors paid by the government. This was even more like the British National Health Service than what we’re doing with “Obamacare.”

    6. Likewise, our economy is a hell of a lot bigger, too, and health care costs are dragging it down. We can’t afford to not respond.

    7. Tell that one to cops, firemen, coal miners, taxi drivers, and members of Congress, not to mention commercial fishermen.

  12. erinyes  •  Jan 22, 2011 @1:05 pm

    How bad of a nerd?
    That’s a trap, like when my wife asks me if her “outfit” makes her look fat.
    Ain’t going there.
    But I did read the comments following Rick Ungar’s piece, one from a seaman stated that the insurance provided to the crews of documented vessels was axed under Ronald Reagan around ’81.

  13. Swami  •  Jan 23, 2011 @12:55 am

    Just a little tidbit….Frederick Douglass made his escape to freedom by using forged seaman’s papers.