Historian: Thomas Jefferson supported `government run health care'

Image of Thomas JeffersonThanks to the Sheet Metal Workers for posting this article by Greg Sargent, Washington Post, on their Facebook page. I see that the Rick Ungar post I flagged yesterday arguing that John Adams supported a 1798 measure similar to health reform's individual mandate is starting to get some traction on the Web. Good.

Now I've got a bit more for you along these lines. It turns out Thomas Jefferson also supported the same measure, meaning it had more support than you might have thought among the founders. Jefferson, of course, is the founder most often cited by the Obamacare-despising Tea Partyers as their intellectual and political forefather.

In case you missed Ungar's post, he pointed out that in July of 1798, Congress passed "An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seaman" --which was signed by President Adams -- authorizing the creation of a government operated system of marine hospitals and mandating that laboring merchant marine sailors pay a tax to support it. A historian I spoke to yesterday said this showed that "the post-revolutionary generation clearly thought that the national government had a role" in subsidizing "government run health care."

Some folks pushed back with a good question: Wouldn't it be expected for Adams, a leading proponent of federal power, to support this? What about founders like Jefferson who favored a weaker federal government?

Well, Jefferson did support this plan, the historian, Adam Rothman, a Georgetown University history professor who specializes in the early republic, tells me. Rothman emails:

Alexander Hamilton supported the establishment of Marine Hospitals in a 1792 Report, and it was a Federalist congress that passed the law in 1798. But Jefferson (Hamilton's strict constructionist nemesis) also supported federal marine hospitals, and along with his own Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, took steps to improve them during his presidency. So I guess you could say it had bipartisan support.

As I noted here yesterday, the comparison between this 1798 measure and the individual mandate is imperfect. The 1798 act was a tax -- mandatory for all merchant marine sailors to pay if they wanted to work -- that was used to support the marine hospital system they used if they got sick or injured. But as Ezra Klein notes, this was in many ways similar to the system underlying the idea of Medicare-for-all -- they paid taxes in exchange for government run insurance.

And it had the support of the Tea Party demi-God himself, Thomas Jefferson.

By Greg Sargent | January 21, 2011; 1:23 PM ET