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Pursuing their Happiness

Johann Neem

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).

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