If the goal is to honor the founding fathers…

IF THE GOAL IS TO HONOR THE FOUNDING FATHERS…. For much of the contemporary right, there’s a near-obsession with the nation’s Founding Fathers. Conservatives’ understanding of history is a little shakier than it should be, but the right seems convinced that their vision of government is identical to that of those who wrote the Constitution.

This is particularly true in the debate over health care reform, in which conservatives insist that the Founding Fathers never would have approved of the Affordable Care Act. It’s an odd hypothetical — those living in an 18th-century agrarian society with a modest population couldn’t possibly imagine the needs of modern American society — but the crux of the argument is that the individual mandate is at odds with our historical and legal traditions.

Americans history is already filled with examples to the contrary — government-mandated purchases go back to the days of George Washington — but Rick Ungar finds an especially interesting example. (thanks to reader C.G. for the tip)

In July of 1798, Congress passed — and President John Adams signed — “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen.” The law authorized the creation of a government operated marine hospital service and mandated that privately employed sailors be required to purchase health care insurance.

Keep in mind that the 5th Congress did not really need to struggle over the intentions of the drafters of the Constitutions in creating this Act as many of its members were the drafters of the Constitution.

And when the Bill came to the desk of President John Adams for signature, I think it’s safe to assume that the man in that chair had a pretty good grasp on what the framers had in mind.

Yes, in all likelihood, the Founding Fathers were aware of what the Founding Fathers considered constitutionally permissible.

Paul Waldman argues, persuasively, that this is little more than an interesting historical footnote, and that reform proponents should remember that “we can’t decide questions of contemporary policy by trying to figure out what Jefferson, Adams, and Madison would say about them.”

That’s entirely right. Still, there’s some entertainment value in knocking down one of the right’s favorite arguments, and for Supreme Court justices who are equally obsessed with determining framers’ intent, it’s possible anecdotes like this one could carry some actual weight, whether they should or not.

What’s more, it’s not just Adams — Thomas Jefferson also supported the identical 1798 proposal, which, any way you slice it, required private citizens to pay into a public health-care system, and included a “regulation against a form of inactivity.”

By any sensible standard, one does not need obscure 18th-century anecdotes to know the individual mandate — which was a Republican idea, anyway — passes constitutional muster. But for those on the right who consider this original-intent concept paramount, we can add this to the list of things they’ve gotten terribly wrong.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.