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Our Socialist Founding Fathers
Our Socialist Founding Fathers

JURIST Guest Columnist Mark Brown, holder of the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at Capital University School of Law, says that in the midst of the current furor over health care reform legislation we should remember that America's own revered Founding Fathers authorized, and sometimes embraced, governmental programs that offered essential services to the masses at low or no cost…


The ongoing debate over health-care reform has generated renewed interest in "socialism." Some claim that governmental competition in the health insurance industry is socialism; others insist it is not. For many on both sides of this divide, it seems, whether a “public option” is legitimate depends on how this definitional question is answered. After all, everyone knows that socialism is unconstitutional. It clearly contradicts the ideals of our Founding Fathers.

Actually, it doesn’t. Here’s a shock. Many of our Founding Fathers were socialists. They believed that “essential” services should be provided by government to the public at large for little or no remuneration. The costs of these services would be shared by the whole. This, by most modern accounts, is socialism.

The Constitution of the United States, drafted in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia by some of the smartest men on this side of the Pond, proves this to be true. In that cherished document, the Founding Fathers demanded socialism. Section 8 of Article I, for example, empowers Congress “To establish Post Offices and post Roads.” That same Section also authorizes Congress “To raise and support Armies,” and even “To provide and maintain a Navy.” Although the text does not preclude privatization of these public institutions — indeed, they continue to include entrepreneurial elements to this day — the Framers understood that they would certainly have public, social elements as well. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams — among others — all signed this document. They agreed that the new national government would facilitate communication and defense through taxation. They agreed that these essential services would not have to be purchased on the open market. They agreed that these services would not be limited to those who could pay fair market value.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (who skipped the Constitutional Convention in favor of traipsing off to Paris during that hot summer in 1787), also supported the fledgling Nation’s foray into socialism. Perhaps the greatest of all of America’s socialized institutions, the Nation’s modern highway system, was begun in 1806 by then-President Jefferson’s authorization of the Cumberland (National) Road. Transportation, too, was deemed to be one of the Nation’s essential services that could not be relegated to private industry.

The Congress did President Jefferson one better. It socialized the great bulk of America’s navigable waterways in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The founding generation recognized early on that the national government needed the power regulate interstate commerce—this was written into Article I of the 1787 Constitution—and waterways provided the most important channel of commerce. The national government, using this authority, opened America’s internal waterways to commerce. These immense “social” highways proved a boon to entrepreneurial activities (and perhaps saved the Nation).

Communication, transportation and mutual defense provide only the most obvious examples of the Founding Father’s interests in socialized institutions. Contrary to some popular reports, many in the founding generation had “republican,” communitarian leanings. Our forefathers were not devout disciples of Adam Smith, let alone Herbert Spencer (who in the mid-nineteenth century infamously coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”). They were pragmatists, capitalists and socialists, willing to try whatever was necessary to insure that the American experiment did not fail.

Of course, the Founding generation did not believe that every human endeavor benefited from governmental competition. The founding generation’s socialism only went so far. The Founders believed in private enterprise.

But it was not long before the Founders’ sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, discovered the benefits of extending socialism beyond communication, transportation and national defense. Libraries, fire protection, police protection and education were all socialized to some extent in the nineteenth century. None of these developments replaced private enterprise—they merely insured that more Americans reaped the benefits.

Would the Founders have objected to these modern developments? No clear answer exists. Private educational institutions were known to the founding generation, and it obviously did not make any concerted effort to extend this benefit to the masses. But formal education was relatively unimportant in the late eighteenth century. I cannot believe that those Founders who favored a socialized communication network — the Post Office — would have necessarily frowned on an additional public institution designed to convey information. Nothing in the document signed in Philadelphia in 1787, at least, prohibits governments from opening public schools.

What about medicine? Would the Framers have objected to governmental competition in the health care context? At the turn of the eighteenth century, of course, the medical profession bordered on witchcraft; few Founders would have wished it on anyone. (George Washington, remember, was bled to death by his doctors. Dr. Benjamin Rush, another important Founder, routinely prescribed mercury for anything and everything.) Assuming that they thought the medical profession could do any good—which is doubtful—no one can say with any certainty whether the Founding Fathers would have rejected measures that made it more accessible. All we know is they wrote nothing into the Constitution to prohibit socialized medicine.

History teaches us that the Framers were not averse to socialism. They authorized, and sometimes embraced, governmental programs that offered essential services to the masses at low or no cost. Communication, transportation, and defense were what the Founders deemed essential at the end of the eighteenth century. That was their time. They did not call it socialism. They called it good government.

Mark R. Brown is the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at Capital University Law School.
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