On Independence Day 2012

I’m wondering whether the current government should have declared July 4,2012, a “government dependence” day instead of our traditional July 4th.  Considering the recent twists and turns in the latest sad tale of government dependence—Obamacare (more to come on this in a coming Dispatch).

July 4th is a notable date that has come back time and time again in our history:

July 4, 1826, when both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. Each not knowing that the other was going with him.

July 4, 1850, when Zachary Taylor presided over laying the cornerstone of the Washington Monument (not the real one in Baltimore) and was suddenly stricken with cholera morbus and died within days.

Last year we began commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It was the largest armed conflict anywhere in the world during the 100-year Pax Britannica (a period of relative peace in Europe and the world due to British control of the seas).  And it was the first “modern war” with mechanized troop transports on rail roads, rifled arms, cannons and projectiles, trench warfare. As well as William Sherman’s “innovative” concept of the ordeal of “total war” where civilian shelter, food, water, and property were actively targeted instead of just the armed, fighting forces.

July 4, 1863, marked the conclusion of the fateful Battle of Gettysburg following a chance meeting of the two great armies in Pennsylvania while each was on their way to someplace else. And in the west, U.S. Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi after a long siege. Together these simultaneous events—one an accident and the other very deliberate—marked the turning of the tide of the entire war.

We all hear the ongoing arguments about the reasons for this conflict and the necessity and rightness of the Union prevailing over the Confederacy. But several results are very clear:

  • The victory of a dense, urbanized polity over agrarian democracy, as warned by Thomas Jefferson
  • The victory of the New York Wall Street bankers and financiers over Main Street America, as warned by Jefferson, Madison and Andrew Jackson
  • The victory of the urban mobs and their political bosses and machines over rural and small-town America, as warned by William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor
  • And above all, the victory of the federal government over the sovereign states that had created it.

At the time of the Civil War the federal government was sized appropriately to its constitutional duties. The Army was the only large-standing entity of the federal government. So when it came time to study the causes of the diseases and illnesses that were killing more men than were enemy bullets, in 1863, the job went to the Army Medical Corps. And it was the Army Surgeon General who established the first federal medical research facility—the Army Medical Museum. They also combined it with the Army Surgeon General’s Library (today’s National Library of Medicine).

Also in 1863, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to harness knowledge of the sciences and engineering to help fight the war.

The federal government managed to conduct medical and scientific research and education, and use it to help win the biggest war in our history. And they did it by working within its existing structure, without having to invent entire new agencies and government departments.

The first time any government became involved in providing health services directly to individuals was also a result of the Civil War. Amputation was the hallmark of the 19th century battlefield surgeon. The result was a generation of young men missing limbs. After the war there were advancements in the design and development of prosthetic limbs—but they were very expensive. So in the 1870’s, in order to help veterans afford these costly prosthetics, the City of Chicago political machine began providing subsidies for them. Which was also a clever way to buy votes.

These practices slowly expanded to other cities and other kinds of health services for individuals.  These political actions were separate from the necessary work of governments in public health, sanitation, and control of infectious diseases  — work that has saved more lives than any drug or medical treatment.

Ultimately, 150 years later, the final word in government health subsidies, “mandates,”  and more taxes for individuals, the “big daddy” (or “big brother”) of them all, has been brought to us by another Chicago machine politician. Perhaps representing the ultimate victory of the federal government over the once sovereign states and citizens.  And, perhaps, our ultimate political and economic demise as a nation of independent citizens.

Someone must have cut off the last page of the Bill of Rights, with the 9th and 10th Amendments, in the copies of the U.S. Constitution distributed to the Pelosi-Reed Congress. As President Lincoln said, the United States of America cannot be defeated by any foreign enemy, but only from the enemies within…

Or as thoughtfully stated by the Declaration of Independence itself, July 4, 1776:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security…”