No, John Adams Did Not Pass the First Obamacare Law

-By Warner Todd Huston

Every few weeks for months now leftist bloggers have been happily touting the “fact” that our second president, John Adams, passed the first “national healthcare law” one that supposedly forced Americans to buy a form of healthcare. Unfortunately for them, this is simply untrue and comparing John Adams’ sailor’s relief act to Obamacare is misleading at worst and an apples to oranges comparison at best.

But even as today’s leftists want to use this old sailor’s act as poof that nationalized healthcare has precedent, and even as they are wrong, the history does serve us well as an example of the follies of nationalized healthcare. Curiously enough, it’s a lesson that the leftists don’t seem to mention in their laudatory pieces on John Adams’ law.

The law in question is the “act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen,” passed in 1798.

This law mandated owners of sailing vessels to pay a per-sailor tax to the federal government so that members of the merchant marine could find temporary healthcare when they got sick. The act informed the nation that the president 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, the modern American left points to this and, squealing with glee, claims that this was the first “healthcare mandate.” They imagine that this law was the first version of Obamacare and that this is somehow precedent for Obama’s modern, socialist power grab.

Unfortunately for our friends on the left, a closer look at this ancient law fails the test as support for Obamacare.

Before we get to the specifics of the sailor’s relief act, let us consider another, broader point. The left claims that this law is precedent of the veracity of the individual mandate and other aspects of Obamacare, right? Well, it is interesting to see the left use history as a guide for a change. After all, most leftists despise history and generally want to erase our past from being considered an important aspect of the national debate. Yet here they are trying to use history to prove their point! It’s very paradoxical behavior.

Additionally, it is interesting that these leftists cite John Adams’ presidency as “proof” for their current pet law. It was John Adams that passed the Alien and Sedition Act, the act that unconstitutionally put in jail any member of the media that opposed the federal government, an act that was immediately overturned by Thomas Jefferson, our third president. And if all laws of our past were to be set in stone as the left’s pointing to the sailor’s act seems to imply, then slavery would be with us today, would it not?

Just because we had a law in the past does not mean it was either constitutional, fully accepted by all even then, or apropos to our current debates. It doesn’t mean that the historical case useful, either. What it means is that the historical record must be examined on a case-by-case basis before being applied to today’s debate.

Now to analyze the left’s attempt to use the sailor’s act as proof for Obamacare.

First of all, the very first paragraph of the original act makes the lie to the left’s claims.

Be it enacted, That from and after the first day of September next, the master or owner of every ship or vessel of the United States, arriving from a foreign port into any port of the United States, shall, before such ship or vessel shall be admitted to an entry, render to the collector a true account of the number of seamen that shall have been employed on board such vessel since she was last entered at any port in the United States, and shall pay, to the said collector, at the rate of twenty cents per month for every seaman so employed ; which sum he is hereby authorized to retain out of the wages of such seamen.

And thus we see that this law was an employer mandate, not a personal mandate. The law required employers of the sailors to pay the tax, not the sailor’s themselves. Nor did this tax fall on people outside the maritime services. This is quite unlike Obamacare. In Obamacare we are all going to pay, not just our employers, not just people in the healthcare field, and not just the sick alone.

The 1798 act goes on to state that the president may appoint people to oversee the implementation of the act, it tells the president what to do with the monies, how to handle surplus collections, and even authorizes him to build facilities if needed. The act even sets up a fine for ship owners that are found to have lied to the tax collectors about how many sailors they employed.

All this might seem to support parts of Obamacare until one realizes that such enforcement and directions are common to every law. Nothing there is really very specific to the support of Obamacare.

Now, to further flesh out the history we must look at the era, what the merchant marines then meant to the nation, and all the other facts surrounding the sailor’s relief act so that we might properly understand it and put the law in context. This exercise also tends to prove that the modern left is wrong to use this act as proof of the legality of Obamacare.

First and foremost we must understand that the maritime services in the private sector in 1798 was the most vital national interest we had. It didn’t just serve an economic interest, either. It was also a matter of national security. You see the U.S. lacked a thorough national navy and army in 1798 and the merchant marines served as our first line of defense then.

Our international trade was our national lifeline. In those days the federal government paid its expenditures solely off tariffs (taxes) on trade. There were no taxes on Americans that paid the government’s operating expenses. Without regular trade constantly flowing from Europe to America, the federal government went without operating cash.

So, making sure these sailors had healthcare was a vital national economic and military interest. This is quite unlike Obamacare.

Clearly, one of the clear constitutional duties the federal government has is to regulate trade. In fact, the Articles of Confederation — the pact that held the nation together before the U.S. Constitution was ratified — had a singular failure in that the national government had no power to stop the states from engaging in harmful trade wars amongst each other. And these little internecine wars were killing the economies of the states before the Constitution put a stop to it. This is why the Constitution gave the federal government power over trade, taking that power away from the states.

Consequently, we are all agreed that the Constitution has the power to regulate trade and the sailor’s relief act was an action within that duty. Again, if the sailors were all too sick to work, then trade was harmed. Trade, being a vital national interest, and trade, being regulated by the Constitution, gave congress the right to enact the sailor’s relief law.

There is no such vital trade connection with Obamacre. There just isn’t.

Finally, the sailor’s relief act specifically stated that the healthcare to be given was to be of “temporary relief” of the sailor’s medical problems. The act was not meant to cover all healthcare problems, nor any chronic health problems. If sailors were found to be chronically ill, or needed major healthcare expenditures, they were not supposed to receive the benefits of this program. This is quite unlike Obamacare in that today’s healthcare law is supposed to cover anything and everything.

Now that we’ve successfully destroyed every part of the left’s claims that the sailor’s relief act fits the Obamacare template, there is one other aspect to highlight: the costs.

As it happens, even the sailor’s relief act was a financial failure. By 1821 the program was bankrupt and had strayed badly from its original mandate.

In 1821, U.S. Treasury Secretary William Crawford found that the program was a disaster. He wrote a letter to explain how the bad it had gotten, a letter that should serve as a major warning as we contemplate implementing another such disastrous program in Obamacare.

Crawford explained that sailors that were chronically ill were getting care when they shouldn’t have. He also noted that the program was spending far more than it took in leading to a deficit spending problem. He recommended that steps be taken to kick out any sailor that didn’t just need short term healthcare and warned healthcare providers to stop all care once the tax money ran out and to only resume it again when the coffers were re-filled by tax receipts.

So, in essence, Sec. Crawford set up a sort of “death panel” by decreeing that chronically ill sailors should be cut off from services. He also decreed that poor — or pauper — sailors should not be allowed services. That’s right, the government cut off healthcare to those that “needed it most.” Just as Obamacare supporters today blame the evil insurance companies for doing.

Yet the left points to this act as proof that Obamacare is legitimate?

One shudders at the thought.

The fact is, the sailor’s relief act is not in any way like Obamacare nor does it serve to justify Obama’s socialist healthcare powergrab.

Once again, we find the American left wholly misunderstanding history, misusing it for their modern powergrabs, and otherwise refusing to properly inform the public about the smoke and mirrors they are employing to fool all of the people, all of the time.
“The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
–Samuel Johnson

Warner Todd Huston is a Chicago based freelance writer. He has been writing opinion editorials and social criticism since early 2001 and before that he wrote articles on U.S. history for several small American magazines. His political columns are featured on many websites such as Andrew Breitbart’s,, and, as well as,,,,, among many, many others. Mr. Huston is also endlessly amused that one of his articles formed the basis of an article in Germany’s Der Spiegel Magazine in 2008.

For a full bio, please CLICK HERE.

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