-By Warner Todd Huston
Every few weeks for months now leftist bloggers have been
happily touting the "fact" that our second president, John Adams,
passed the first "national healthcare law" one that supposedly forced
Americans to buy a form of healthcare. Unfortunately for them, this is simply
untrue and comparing John Adams' sailor's relief act to Obamacare is misleading
at worst and an apples to oranges comparison at best.
But even as today’s leftists want to use this old sailor's
act as poof that nationalized healthcare has precedent, and even as they are
wrong, the history does serve us well as an example of the follies of
nationalized healthcare. Curiously enough, it’s a lesson that the leftists
don't seem to mention in their laudatory pieces on John Adams' law.
The law in question is the "act
for the relief of sick and disabled seamen," passed in 1798.
This law mandated owners of sailing vessels to pay a
per-sailor tax to the federal government so that members of the merchant marine
could find temporary healthcare when they got sick. The act informed the nation
that the president is "hereby authorized, out of the same, to provide for
the temporary relief and maintenance of sick, or disabled seamen, in the
hospitals or other proper institutions…"
Now, the modern American left points to this and, squealing
with glee, claims that this was the first "healthcare mandate." They
imagine that this law was the first version of Obamacare and that this is
somehow precedent for Obama's modern, socialist power grab.
Unfortunately for our friends on the left, a closer look at
this ancient law fails the test as support for Obamacare.
Before we get to the specifics of the sailor's relief act,
let us consider another, broader point. The left claims that this law is
precedent of the veracity of the individual mandate and other aspects of
Obamacare, right? Well, it is interesting to see the left use history as a
guide for a change. After all, most leftists despise history and generally want
to erase our past from being considered an important aspect of the national
debate. Yet here they are trying to use history to prove their point! It's very
Additionally, it is interesting that these leftists cite
John Adams' presidency as "proof" for their current pet law. It was
John Adams that passed the Alien and Sedition Act, the act that
unconstitutionally put in jail any member of the media that opposed the federal
government, an act that was immediately overturned by Thomas Jefferson, our
third president. And if all laws of our past were to be set in stone as the
left's pointing to the sailor's act seems to imply, then slavery would be with
us today, would it not?
Just because we had a law in the past does not mean it was
either constitutional, fully accepted by all even then, or apropos to our
current debates. It doesn’t mean that the historical case
useful, either. What it means is that the historical record
must be examined on a case-by-case basis before being applied to today’s
Now to analyze the left's attempt to use the sailor's act as
proof for Obamacare.
First of all, the very first paragraph of the original act
makes the lie to the left's claims.
Be it enacted, That from and after the first day of
September next, the master or owner of every ship or vessel of the United
States, arriving from a foreign port into any port of the United States, shall,
before such ship or vessel shall be admitted to an entry, render to the
collector a true account of the number of seamen that shall have been employed
on board such vessel since she was last entered at any port in the United
States, and shall pay, to the said collector, at the rate of twenty cents per
month for every seaman so employed ; which sum he is hereby authorized to
retain out of the wages of such seamen.
And thus we see that this law was an employer mandate, not a
personal mandate. The law required employers of the sailors to pay the tax, not
the sailor's themselves. Nor did this tax fall on people outside the maritime
services. This is quite unlike Obamacare. In Obamacare we are all going to pay,
not just our employers, not just people in the healthcare field, and not just
the sick alone.
The 1798 act goes on to state that the president may appoint
people to oversee the implementation of the act, it tells the president what to
do with the monies, how to handle surplus collections, and even authorizes him
to build facilities if needed. The act even sets up a fine for ship owners that
are found to have lied to the tax collectors about how many sailors they
All this might seem to support parts of Obamacare until one
realizes that such enforcement and directions are common to every law. Nothing there is really very specific
to the support of Obamacare.
Now, to further flesh out the history we must look at the
era, what the merchant marines then meant to the nation, and all the other
facts surrounding the sailor's relief act so that we might properly understand
it and put the law in context. This exercise also tends to prove that the
modern left is wrong to use this act as proof of the legality of Obamacare.
First and foremost we must understand that the maritime
services in the private sector in 1798 was the most vital national interest we
had. It didn't just serve an economic interest, either. It was also a matter of
national security. You see the U.S. lacked a thorough national navy and army in
1798 and the merchant marines served as our first line of defense then.
Our international trade was our national lifeline. In those
days the federal government paid its expenditures solely off tariffs (taxes) on
trade. There were no taxes on Americans that paid the government's operating
expenses. Without regular trade constantly flowing from Europe to America, the
federal government went without operating cash.
So, making sure these sailors had healthcare was a vital
national economic and military interest. This is quite unlike Obamacare.
Clearly, one of the clear constitutional duties the federal
government has is to regulate trade. In fact, the Articles of Confederation --
the pact that held the nation together before the U.S. Constitution was
ratified -- had a singular failure in that the national government had no power
to stop the states from engaging in harmful trade wars amongst each other. And
these little internecine wars were killing the economies of the states before
the Constitution put a stop to it. This is why the Constitution gave the
federal government power over trade, taking that power away from the states.
Consequently, we are all agreed that the Constitution has
the power to regulate trade and the sailor's relief act was an action within
that duty. Again, if the sailors were all too sick to work, then trade was
harmed. Trade, being a vital national interest, and trade, being regulated by
the Constitution, gave congress the right to enact the sailor's relief law.
There is no such vital trade connection with Obamacre. There
Finally, the sailor's relief act specifically stated that
the healthcare to be given was to be of "temporary relief" of the
sailor's medical problems. The act was not meant to cover all healthcare
problems, nor any chronic health problems. If sailors were found to be
chronically ill, or needed major healthcare expenditures, they were not
supposed to receive the benefits of this program. This is quite unlike
Obamacare in that today's healthcare law is supposed to cover anything and
Now that we've successfully destroyed every part of the
left's claims that the sailor's relief act fits the Obamacare template, there
is one other aspect to highlight: the costs.
As it happens, even the sailor's relief act was a financial
failure. By 1821 the program was bankrupt and had strayed badly from its
In 1821, U.S. Treasury Secretary William Crawford found that
the program was a disaster. He wrote
a letter to explain how the bad it had gotten, a letter that should
serve as a major warning as we contemplate implementing another such disastrous
program in Obamacare.
Crawford explained that sailors that were chronically ill
were getting care when they shouldn’t have. He also noted that the program was
spending far more than it took in leading to a deficit spending problem. He
recommended that steps be taken to kick out any sailor that didn't just need
short term healthcare and warned healthcare providers to stop all care once the
tax money ran out and to only resume it again when the coffers were re-filled by
So, in essence, Sec. Crawford set up a sort of "death
panel" by decreeing that chronically ill sailors should be cut off from
services. He also decreed that poor -- or pauper -- sailors should not be
allowed services. That's right, the government cut off healthcare to those that
"needed it most." Just as Obamacare supporters today blame the evil
insurance companies for doing.
Yet the left points to this act as proof that Obamacare is
One shudders at the thought.
The fact is, the sailor’s relief act is not in any way like
Obamacare nor does it serve to justify Obama’s socialist healthcare powergrab.
Once again, we find the American left wholly
misunderstanding history, misusing it for their modern powergrabs, and
otherwise refusing to properly inform the public about the smoke and mirrors
they are employing to fool all of the people, all of the time.