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Pursuing their Happiness

Guesty commentary

the increase of [federal] revenue ... hastens the moment of liberating our revenue, and of permitting us to begin upon canals, roads, colleges, &c. -- Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, May 29, 1805

Would Jefferson have supported the current health care reform? It’s hard to know.

As one of America’s most prominent critics of corporations, he would have welcomed the legislation’s curtailment of the insurance industry’s most egregious abuses, though he would also have worried about requiring citizens to purchase insurance from those same corporations.

But Jefferson may have supported using the federal government to increase access to health care. Jefferson is often mislabeled as hostile to government. In fact, he believed in active government at the state and federal levels when government activity promoted citizens’ abilities to enjoy the freedoms their rights protected.

Let’s take the economy. Jefferson famously celebrated the yeoman farmer but he did not expect farmers to be self-sufficient. Economic freedom required economic opportunity, and this took government. Government, after all, had to secure the land. This meant, first, buying the Louisiana Purchase from France in what might have been the largest government action in the nation’s formative years. Government then supported the diplomats and military that cleared the land of Native American and European powers. Government then redistributed the land to poorer Americans. But land alone was not enough. Throughout his career Jefferson advocated using federal monies to build the internal improvements-such as turnpikes and canals-necessary for farmers to bring their produce to market. In these myriad ways, Jefferson believed government could enhance individual economic freedom.

Jefferson would have applied the same test to health care reform as he did to other government policies. Does it threaten liberty? If so, Jefferson would oppose it. But if it better enabled citizens to pursue their happiness, Jefferson might have been its strongest proponent.

Johann Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University and author of Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (2008).


Anonymous's picture
No, Jefferson would not have supported this type of reform. From the manner in which the law was conceived to the manner in which it was enacted, the complete violation of the 10th amendment to the violation of individual liberties as a whole. The Louisiana Purchase mind you was a country to country transaction, a swath of land so large it would have gone against the sensibilities of the most ardent supporter of individual liberties, for one man to own a piece of land that large. I ask you to look at what Jefferson did with the land after the purchase, he turned much of it over to the people and a huge expansion westward was the result. I interpret the meaning of “pursuit of happiness” to mean that ones happiness cannot be obtained through others, but must be obtained through ones own personal experiences.
Anonymous (not verified)
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1. Jefferson did make the Louisiana Purchase, but he himself admitted that it was in large part a break from- not an extension of- his principles of general federal action. As he wrote to John Colvin in 1810: “A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.” He did NOT believe that it was of general propriety for the Federal government to assume the kind of power it had done in the Louisiana Purchase, but rather argued that extreme circumstances (potentially imminent war with France) had justified a transgression of the law in order to save the nation and the law itself. He expressly opposed generalized Federal assumption of undelegated powers. You later wrote: “Throughout his career Jefferson advocated using federal monies to build the internal improvements-such as turnpikes and canals-necessary for farmers to bring their produce to market.” Jefferson suggested that federal revenue could be used for internal improvements only IF: 1. there was a budget surplus, and 2. a proper Constitutional amendment was ratified to grant the Federal government the necessary power. I see, as you do, and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that, too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power. Here are Jefferson’s words to governor William Giles from 1825: “Take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact acted on by the legislature of the federal branch, and it is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of that department are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic. Under the power to regulate commerce, they assume indefinitely that also over agriculture and manufactures, and call it regulation to take the earnings of one of these branches of industry, and that too the most depressed, and put them into the pockets of the other, the most flourishing of all. Under the authority to establish post roads, they claim that of cutting down mountains for the construction of roads, of digging canals, and aided by a little sophistry on the words “general welfare,” a right to do, not only the acts to effect that, which are specifically enumerated and permitted, but whatsoever they shall think, or pretend will be for the general welfare. And what is our resource for the preservation of the constitution? Reason and argument? You might as well reason and argue with the marble columns encircling them. The representatives chosen by ourselves? They are joined in the combination, some from incorrect views of government, some from corrupt ones, sufficient voting together to out-number the sound parts; and with majorities only of one, two, or three, bold enough to go forward in defiance. Are we then to stand to our arms, with the hot-headed Georgian? No. That must be the last resource, not to be thought of until much longer and greater sufferings. If every infraction of a compact of so many parties is to be resisted at once, as a dissolution of it, none can ever be formed which would last one year. We must have patience and longer endurance then with our brethren while under delusion; give them time for reflection and experience of consequences; keep ourselves in a situation to profit by the chapter of accidents; and separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of our Union with them, or submission to a government without limitation of powers. Between these two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation. But in the meanwhile, the States should be watchful to note every material usurpation on their rights; to denounce them as they occur in the most peremptory terms; to protest against them as wrongs to which our present submission shall be considered, not as acknowledgments or precedents of right, but as a temporary yielding to the lesser evil, until their accumulation shall overweigh that of separation. I would go still further, and give to the federal member, by a regular amendment of the constitution, a right to make roads and canals of intercommunication between the States, providing sufficiently against corrupt practices in Congress, (log-rolling, &c.,) by declaring that the federal proportion of each State of the moneys so employed, shall be in works within the State, or elsewhere with its consent, and with a due salvo of jurisdiction. This is the course which I think safest and best as yet.” I am about as certain as can be that Jefferson would oppose such a healthcare bill as the one which was recently passed by Congress; at best for the pro-government-healthcare crowd, he might have been open to a constitutional amendment enabling Congress to assume the powers it has instead unconstitutionally usurped. Regarding the assertion that Jefferson was not at least largely “hostile to government,” this seems rather indefensible in discussing the man who lamented that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” and who wrote to James Madison in 1787, “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive. It places the governors indeed more at their ease, at the expense of the people.”
Anonymous (not verified)
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Since Thomas Jefferson valued the individual’s pursuit of happiness as a right, it is most likely that he would have realized the necessity of good health as the primary base for such pursuit. Unfortunately, Jefferson himself experienced difficult physical health problems during his last few years of life. It seems likely that he would have very much appreciated access to affordable quality health care as a benefit guaranteed by the government. Jefferson actually appealed to Congress several times, based on his many years of public service, for funds to assist him to live a contented life, which of necessity, includes good health. With proper physical health care, Thomas Jefferson may have lived even longer than his 83 years or the 90 years of his friend John Adams. What a blessing it would have been to provide posterity to receive even more of the fruits of his genius mind.
Anonymous (not verified)
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