The Founding Fathers Not Only Supported Mandates, They Imposed Them. Take That, Scalia!

Making government work better.
April 30 2012 10:36 AM

Originalist Sin

A brilliant article shows that the Founding Fathers not only supported mandates, they passed laws imposing them. Take that, Scalia!

Portrait of George Washington
Would this man have supported the health care mandate?

National Archives/Getty Images

The five conservative justices on the Supreme Court—Thomas, Alito, Scalia, Roberts and Kennedy—cloak themselves in the myth that they are somehow channeling the wisdom and understanding of the Founding Fathers, the original intent that guided the drafting of the Constitution.  I believe the premise of their argument is itself suspect: It is not clear to me how much weight should be given  to non-textually based intent that is practically impossible to discern more than 200 years later. Most of the issues over which there is constitutional dispute today could not even have been envisioned when the document was drafted. 

Even so, it would be an even better response to the conservative wing’s claim of perceived understanding of original intent to be able to refute their claims by showing them to be historically and indisputably wrong.  So once again let’s venture into the world of the health care debate.   The consensus view is that existing Commerce Clause doctrine clearly authorizes the type of mandate passed in the act—see in particular the affirmance of the statute by ultraconservative Judge Silberman of the D.C. Circuit Court. 

Nonetheless, those opposing the bill insist that an individual mandate has never been done and the framers would simply not permit such an encroachment on liberty and freedom.

Advertisement

Some spectacular historical reporting by Professor Einer Elhauge of Harvard Law School in the New Republic thoroughly rebut the argument. He has found three mandate equivalents passed into law by the early Congresses—in which a significant number of founders served—and reports that these bills were signed into law by none other than Presidents George Washington and John Adams. As Founders go, one might consider them pretty senior in the hierarchy.  Their acts can probably be relied upon to give us a reasonable idea what the Founders intended to be the scope of congressional and governmental power.

Amazingly, the examples of individual mandates passed by the founders are so directly applicable that the claim that original intent precludes affirming the heath care act should become almost laughable:

  • In 1790, a Congress including 20 Founders passed a law requiring that ship owners buy medical insurance for their seamen. Washington signed it into law.
  • In 1792, another law signed by Washington required that all able-bodied men buy a firearm. (So much for the argument that Congress can’t force us to participate in commerce.)
  • And in 1798, a Congress with five framers passed a law requiring that all seamen buy hospital insurance for themselves. Adams signed this legislation.

In aggregate, these laws show that the Founders and the Congress of the time were willing to force all of us to participate in a particular act of commence and were comfortable requiring both the owner of a business and the individual employee to buy insurance in order to assure that health costs would be covered at a societal level.  That is a pretty complete rebuttal to all the claims being made by the originalists as they relate to the health care act.

But what is so powerful about these historical finds is not just that they rebut the specific argument about original intent as applied to the health care act. This history lays bare the ahistorical nature of the justices’ claims at another and deeper level. For the types of bill passed in 1790, 1792, and 1798 show the Founders to have been doing exactly what congress did especially well in the era of FDR—--experimenting with solutions and approaches to resolving social issues in ways that made government part of creative problem solving. 

These examples show the fallacy and the false rigidity that the originalists seek to impose on our government. In their effort to cabin and restrain the government—their ideology of the moment—they seek to have the benefit of the claim that the founders shared such a limited approach to governing.  In fact, the approach to governing that these acts demonstrate is more nuanced and thoughtful.  As with so many of the claims of the originalists, a slight understanding of the true history shows that the originalists’ view is mere ideology being imposed on a false understanding of history.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.