Op-ed: Don’t Know Much About History


by David Crocker

Where would we be without the mainstream media? You know, the folks who claim “multiple layers of checks and balances” and the right to determine what is or is not a “news organization”. One would expect that when the editors of a major newspaper opine, they do so based on fact because an editorial is, after all, the august pronouncement of the newspaper itself, bearing the imprimatur of authority.

But if you assume that, you would be mistaken.

Take the editors of the Lewiston Sun-Journal, for instance. In their editorial from last Sunday, “Founders Began the First National Health-Care Plan”, they make some interesting historical assertions in support of ObamaCare’s individual mandate.

The editors state that Congress’ 1798 passage of “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen” is a forerunner of the individual mandate and, indeed, provides proof positive that the “founders” thought socialized medicine was constitutional. This notion became a hot topic in the blogosphere after it was mentioned by Rick Ungar in Forbes magazine (“Congress Passes Socialized Medicine and Mandates Health Insurance in 1798”). The problem with the Sun-Journal’s (and Ungar’s) assertion is that it simply isn’t true.

The Act assessed a direct tax of 20 cents per month (not 1 percent of wages as stated by the Sun-Journal) on a limited number of persons: seaman on United States ships returning from a foreign port and those engaged in the coasting trade, which was shipping between ports in the United States.

The assessment therefore didn’t even extend to all seamen, only to those carrying cargo in interstate and foreign commerce. Indeed, the bill was drafted by a select committee, led by Rep. Livingston of the House Committee on Commerce and Manufactures. Contrary to the Sun-Journal, the Act did not create the Marine Hospital Service (that happened in 1871). Rather, Section 3 of the Act authorized the president to expend collected funds in his discretion to treat ailing seamen in existing hospitals. Section 4 gave the President the authority to construct port hospitals only with surplus funds and section 5 permitted the president to appoint directors in each port who were answerable only to him.

This was not an “individual mandate” requiring every citizen to purchase a product. Rather, it was a tax levied on a particular class of people deemed essential to interstate and foreign commerce and as an inducement for men to join the Merchant Marine in the highly dangerous age of sail. One can at least understand the explicitly commercial intention of the Act. Whether it was constitutional or not is quite a different matter.

There was little debate on the bill in either the House or Senate. Contrary to the Sun-Journal, this does not prove that Thomas Jefferson, Jonathan Dayton and John Adams thought the Act constitutional. It merely proves that senators and congressmen were as inattentive in 1798 as they are today and just as prone to pass questionable legislation when there are pork-barrel possibilities at stake.

As to Jefferson, he was Vice President and President of the Senate in 1798. He would have had no part in the debate and seldom attended Senate sessions in any event. John Adams signed the Act but recall that he also signed the Alien and Sedition Acts on July 14, 1798 – just two days before he signed the Seamen’s Act into the law. When it comes to the Sedition Act in particular, it is difficult to imagine legislation more constitutionally suspect.

Indeed, the only objection on constitutional grounds appears to have come from Republican Rep. Joseph Bradley Varnum of Massachusetts, who said that “he could not reconcile it with that clause of [the Constitution] which says ‘that no capitation or other direct tax, shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration directed to be taken’” and that such matters were best left to local charity. At least somebody was paying attention.

The Sun-Journal’s final knee slapper is their statement that both Jefferson and Adams “were present in that hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia when the Constitution was written, and Adams and Jefferson were among its chief architects.” Unfortunately for the Sun-Journal, while Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Adams drafted Massachusetts’ first constitution, neither was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. In fact, neither man was in the country that summer: Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France and Adams did the same duty in Britain.

While we at the Maine Wire fully understand the Sun-Journal’s support for the individual mandate or any other legislation – constitutional or not – that harasses and oppresses the productive and redistributes their assets, would it be too much to ask that they get their history straight?