Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Tragedy of the Ten-Million Acre Bill

President Franklin Pierce
I readily and, I trust, feelingly acknowledge the duty incumbent on us all as men and citizens, and as among the highest and holiest of our duties, to provide for those who, in the mysterious order of Providence, are subject to want and to disease of body or mind; but I can not find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States. To do so would, in my judgment, be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive of the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded.
Franklin Pierce, in his veto of the 1854 Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane
Though forgotten today and though issued by a one-term president whose name is synonymous with Oval Office mediocrity, the veto of the Bill for the the Benefit of the Indigent Insane became one of the most long-reaching vetoes in the history of the presidency. With it, Franklin Pierce derailed an early attempt to define a wide federal responsibility for the general welfare; the government would not seriously consider a broad role in this arena until forced into it by the social blight of the Great Depression.

Three times before, in 1848, 1850, and 1852, the great social reformer Dororthea Dix had petitioned Congress for a land grant that would fund asylums for the indigent insane. Three times, her request disappeared into the maw of conflicting interests and philosophies about the proper disposition of federal land. Only a few politicians considered her request from the moral angle. Finally, in 1854, she prevailed, only to see President Pierce veto the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane.

Pierce vetoed the bill on three grounds. First, he wrote, nothing in the Constitution authorized Congress to pass this kind of legislation. Second, however worthy the bill might be, enactment would open a floodgate of federal welfare legislation. Third, care of the indigent insane was properly the right and responsibility of individual states. Dix, of course, pursued the legislation in the first place because in her mind the states had abdicated their responsibility.

Dix used her powerful personality in the cause of social reform. Her organizing skills were limited, though, and she did not respond to Pierce's veto with a lobby or movement. Subsequent 19th C. progressives did not pursue health care reform of any kind even when they had the organizing ability. Because of the precedent set by Pierce's veto, the federal government did not significantly involve itself in social reform legislation until the New Deal (with of course the notable exception of the bills underlying Reconstruction).

And so Pierce, a president whom historians have described as "timid and unable to cope with a changing America," established the terms of a debate that resound today. In terms of promoting the general welfare, what is the proper extent of the federal role versus those of the states and private philanthropy? Or is the question itself disingenuous? In some matters, perhaps leaving the general welfare up to the states is a rationalization that accepts injustice in the interests of limited government and the advantages that brings to special interests.

For liberals and progressives, Dix's defeat taught a lesson that went largely ignored for 75 years: Congress is unlikely to pass social reform legislation out of a sense of moral imperative. Social reform legislation requires organization, a skill progressives finally mastered and applied during liberalism's great era stretching from 1933-1965. Today, despite the left's inability to mount a large-scale progressive movement, the lesson of 1854 is reflected in the efforts of thousands of community organizations across the United States. One of their members became president.

To read more about this fascinating episode in American history, see The Social Service Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 1962 (link unavailable).