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The 1798 “Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen:” Yet another “progessive” irrelevancy

RGNStPaulsAs Tom Woods points out on his blog, advocates of Obamacare have dug up a 1798 federal  statute that, they say, shows that the original understanding of the Constitution is broad enough to authorize federal health care programs.  The statute authorized creation of federal hospitals for sailors.

After I entered a brief response to his posting, Mr. Woods queried me about the statute, and I gave him a detailed response. You can read it here.

The bottom line is that the statute was based on an earlier British enactment, which had been accepted by the American colonists before the Revolution as a valid regulation of imperial commerce. This is because governance of navigation (including sailors) had long been considered part of the regulation of commerce. On April 21, 1789, during debates in the first session of the First Congress, James Madison stated explicitly that light houses and hospitals for disabled seamen were “establishments incidental to commerce.”

The statute is irrelevant to federal health care programs that go beyond providing for those working in foreign or interstate transportation.

Even if the statute seemed relevant, a very important caution is in order: When you are reconstructing the original force of the unamended Constitution, the key is the meaning to the ratifiers when they approved the document between 1787 and 1790.  An enactment a decade later by a very different group of people not focused on constitutional meaning, in very different circumstances and acting under very different incentives is just not very good evidence of what the ratifiers understood the Constitution to mean several years earlier.

Rob Natelson

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