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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Perhaps People Should Read More And Cherrypick Less


“One reason the American people got stuck with Obamacare was due to a devolution in American thinking over time that it was the government’s job to provide health care for those who couldn’t afford it on their own,” [Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli] explains. “But taking care of the poor is ideally the province first of families, churches, and charities, not the government. In fact, public charity was never supposed to be a function of the federal government.”

The firebrand conservative cites a speech James Madison delivered in 1794 to burnish his argument against the government safety net.

It sure would be helpful if they'd told us which speech, but I guess we're supposed to buy Cuccinelli's book to find out.  Regardless, I'm presuming it's one to the House on January 10 as members debated some relief to French refugees holed up in Baltimore after fleeing some unpleasantness (a little old slave revolt) in Santo Domingo, what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

As an aside, I've found many anti-Obamacare people quoting the speech with some variant of this:

The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.

It's presented as some verbatim speechifying, but actually is a summary excerpted from Elliot's Debates.  Jonathon Elliot was an historian, and his multi-volume tome was published in the 1830s, originally focusing on the Philadelphia Convention and then adding materials from early Congressional debates.

Here's what the contemporaneous (to Elliot) Annals of Congress records:

Mr. Madison wished to relieve the sufferers, but was afraid of establishing a dangerous precedent, which might hereafter be perverted to the countenance of purposes, very different from those of charity. He acknowledged, for his own part, that he could not undertake to lay his finger on that article in the Federal constitution, which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents. And if once they broke the line laid down before them, for the direction of their conduct, it was impossible to say, to what lengths they might go, or to what extremities this practice might be carried. 

I'm willing to accept that these two accounts have the same figurative flavor, but literally they are quite different figurative dishes, so I wouldn't put too much stock on any direct quotation that doesn't acknowledge the summary nature of the words.

Anyway, noting that, I should also point out one of the responses to Madison (recalling that he, while Father of the Constitution, was merely a single voice and vote in the House of Representatives, however influential he might have been).

Mr. Clark wished that the gentleman who spoke last would be careful of preserving consistency. It was only a few days ago that he had laid before the House a resolution, by which Congress were to indemnify all such citizens of the United States as had suffered losses by the British pirates. He supposed that for this, there would be found as little authority in lhe articles of the Constitution, as for relieving the fugitives from Cape Francois.

Mr. Madison, in explanation, replied, that the two cases were widely different. The vessels of America sailed under our flag, and were under our protection, by the law of nations, which the French sufferers unquestionably were not. As to the resolution he had proposed, it was not then before the house, and hence he could not speak to it with propriety. It was very possible that the house might find it wrong, and reject it. He wished not to be misunderstood, for he was sure, that every member in that house felt the warmest sympathy with the situation of the sufferers. He would be very glad to find a proper way for their relief.

This exchange, BTW, is not found at all in Elliot's, which is of interest if only because people who cite it will have completely missed the fact that Madison DID support "charity" for people suffering from bad circumstances, so long as they were Americans.  They clearly also didn't notice this, signed into law a month later:

Be it enacted by the Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, Appropriation for support of inhabitants of St. Domingo. That a sum not exceeding fifteen thousand dollars, be, and the same is hereby appropriated, to be paid out of any moneys which may be in the Treasury, arising from foreign loans, for the support of such of the inhabitants of Saint Domingo, resident within the United States, as shall be found in want of such support.

One might say Madison lost the question, although he was actually instrumental in the compromise bill that eventually passed.  Seems like that further undermines Cuccinelli's apparent thesis.

Oh yeah, then there's the Fifth Congress just 4 years later passing another "charity" law:

March 14, 1798. Chap. XV.— An Act to provide for the Widows and Orphans of certain deceased Officers.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the provisions for widows and orphans of commissioned officers of troops of the United States, contained in the first section of the law passed on the seventh day of June, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, intituled "An act in addition to the act making further and more effectual provision for the protection of the frontiers of the United States," be and the same are hereby extended to the widows and orphan children of commissioned officers of the troops of the United States, and of the militia, who have died by reason of wounds received since the fourth day of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, in the actual service of the United States...

And later that year authorizing what was essentially a payroll tax:

  • 3. [T]he president of the United States 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 established in the several ports of the United States, or in ports where no such institutions exist, then in such other manner as he shall direct: Provided, that the moneys collected in any one district, shall be expended within the same.
  • 4. That if any surplus shall remain of the moneys to be collected by virtue of this act, after defraying the expense of such temporary relief and support, that the same, together with such private donations as may be made for that purpose, (which the president is hereby authorized to receive,) shall be invested in the stock of the United States, under the direction of the president; and when, in his opinion, a sufficient fund shall be accumulated, he is hereby authorized to purchase or receive cessions or donations of ground or buildings, in the name of the United States, and to cause buildings, when necessary, to be erected as hospitals for the accommodation of sick and disabled seamen.

There were some objections to the bill, of course, but obviously overcome one way or another.  And even Congressmen who had issues with specific components of the measure saw the larger picture.  For instance:

Mr Sewall...thought the laws of reason and charity called upon the public at large in support of unfortunate men of this description.

Supporters echoed the sentiments:

Mr Parker...[hoped] the sailors of this country would not be left to the doubtful benevolence of others; but that by passing this bill, a permanent relief might be afforded them in case of sickness, disability, or old age.

Josiah Parker, BTW, was a delegate to Virginia's ratifying convention in 1788 and had been in Congress since the First.  I'm thinking he might know a thing or two about the Constitution's limits on his branch's authority.

So it seems a bit odd to rest one pillar of your objections to Obamacare on an imperfect summary of a single speech from one Representative in a particular Congress who supported another relief measure days before debating something that ultimately passed and provided ample precedent for further similar action by other Legislatures made up of the Founding Generation.  But I suppose that ain't surprising...


January 31, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink


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