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Tea party's skewed history

Too many people who claim they love America aren't feeling the same about their fellow countrymen.

The tea party's counter-demonstrations in Wisconsin are a prime example. Imagine celebrating the defeat of the collective bargaining rights that gave $50,000-a-year teachers their only semblance of control over their working lives. Can you feel the love?

Another back-of-the-hand to everyday Americans is the tea party crowd's combative response to President Barack Obama's health care reform. The measure just passed its first anniversary and already provides Americans desperately needed consumer protections against predatory health insurers.

These self-declared patriots and strict constructionists claim it's constitutionally heretical to force Americans to participate in a program that makes comprehensive health insurance affordable and accessible to all.

Their cause has no empathy for people who can't afford insurance in the current marketplace, or who have pre-existing conditions that make private health coverage impossible to obtain. They don't care that the only way to provide universal access and bring down costs is through an individual mandate of the sort included in the law, which requires nearly everyone to have health coverage or pay a penalty.

More important to them — so they claim — is to keep America free from this European socialist intrusion on liberty that the nation's founders would never, ever have considered.

But their appreciation for history is skewed and incomplete. Actually, our founders established the first compulsory national health care system. In July 1798, as blogger Rick Ungar of Forbes notes, Congress passed "An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen," signed by President John Adams.

The law required privately employed sailors to pay part of their wages toward a government-run health insurance program. The money funded the Marine Hospital Service, a chain of government hospitals that provided health care services for sick or injured sailors.

Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent adds the delicious tidbit that Thomas Jefferson, the anti-federalist and tea party hero, also supported the federal marine hospital system, working to improve it during his presidency.

While it was structured somewhat differently than the Affordable Care Act, Jefferson, Adams and other founders had no problem endorsing a government health insurance mandate to advance the general welfare.

And tea party "historians" are also wrong to claim that the founders never would have regulated "inactivity" by directing Americans — who are simply existing — to purchase a good or service from the private marketplace.

Under the Militia Act of 1792, signed by President George Washington, every able-bodied white, male citizen between 18 and 45 years old (with some limited exceptions) was required to be in a militia and "provide himself with" a musket or rifle, a knapsack and ammunition, all typically bought from private dealers. This was expensive gear for average Americans of the time who earned less than a dollar a day but were expected to buy a $13 musket that was generally too heavy for more conventional uses like hunting.

While the current legal fight over health care reform is focusing on Congress' expansive powers under the Constitution's Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses, not its militia powers, these examples demonstrate that the tea party-venerated founders were not skittish about using government power to force sacrifices on the citizenry for the common good.

Actually this notion of classical republicanism was well grounded in our young democracy, alongside principles of individual liberty, self-determination and human equality. The founders were strongly influenced by the Roman republic's emphasis on civic virtue and the promotion of the needs of the community over individual desires. Washington was adoringly known as "our Cincinnatus" because he sacrificed so much for the nation then relinquished the presidency after two terms, just as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus had twice left stints as leader of Rome to return to his farm.

The tea party crowd's cramped reading of history to justify the repeal of health care reform is just a convenient cover. At its core, this movement is about self-interest. Its followers are devoid of compassion for and solidarity with their fellow Americans. They may loudly proclaim love of country, but as to its people, their motto is the decidedly French: "Let them eat cake."

Tea party's skewed history 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 4:30am]
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