Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 27, 2011

Founding Socialists?

Filed under: C-P Politics Issue 2008,Constitutional history,Founders,Government — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:00 am

This post will not live up to its title.

This space has been set to “sporadic” whilst I work out some issues with my nonline writing, but here is something that came almost directly across our very own transom.  The invaluable John Fea alerted us to a minor controversy over Our Founders’ thoughts on government-run healthcare that raged last week – those guys thought of everything. It flared up first at Forbes.com, got mentioned at Media Matters and the Washington Post site, and was eventually linked back, shockingly, to the Common-Place Politics issue that Ed Gray and I put together in late 2008. Specifically, Greg Sargent of the WaPo cited Gautham Rao’s essay on the early republic’s marine hospitals, a publicly funded healthcare system for merchant sailors, paid for through a withholding tax on sailors’ wages.  Not a household word, the marine hospitals, but we can always hope.

Probably the most notable aspect of this issue as far the Founders are concerned is that big names said little or nothing about it (at least as far I know without digging all the way through Gautham’s bibliography). Though public anything on Our Founders’ watch is a moral impossibility as currently popular views would have it, the marine hospitals were not even controversial to the actually existing Founders. The merchant marine was a national resource that needed to be kept supplied with workers, so the Founder-managed government did something that needed to be done: make a low-paying, dangerous but necessary occupation a bit less frightening. As Greg Sargent and the Forbes blogger, Rick Ungar, point out, the marine hospital system was created under John Adams by the same Federalist Congress who brought you the Alien and Sedition Acts, but it also enjoyed the support of Adams’s successor, Thomas Jefferson.  More than supported, in fact: Rao shows that the marine hospitals moved west and south with the frontier, eagerly requested even by good Jeffersonians and future Rand Paul constituents of Paducah, Kentucky.

Admittedly, I myself do not think it should matter that much what the statesmen of two+ centuries ago would think about issues they never had to confront.  The Founders lived in a world where massive intentional bleeding was an advanced medical treatment and basic, ubiquitous modern economic institutions such as corporations, banks and insurance were still rare and controversial in their very existence. If Michele Bachmann could go back and ask Jefferson or Adams what they think about “Obamacare,” assuming they did not flee into the woods at the sight of her, their most likely response would be, “Why are you asking us?”

Still, it was nice to see that the C-P Politics issue was of use to somebody. That was not so clear at the time.

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