Editorial: From O’Brien, a despicable argument
In May 1854 a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns who had escaped from his master in Virginia as a shipboard stowaway was captured in Boston and held at a city courthouse. Abolitionists held an incendiary protest rally at Faneuil Hall demanding Burns’s freedom and then stormed the court. Guards fought back with clubs and swords. In the chaos that ensued, one courthouse guard was killed.
President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire approved the use of federal troops to ensure Burns’s return to Virginia – and supported his attorney general’s ruling that abolitionists could not buy Burns’s freedom. Burns’s master later sold him to a horse dealer for $905, and that man eventually accepted $1,300 from an abolitionist for Burns’s liberty.
This was reality in the United States under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The law compelled American citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves. It denied slaves the right to a jury trial and increased the penalty for interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to $1,000 (about $27,000 today) and six months in jail. Federal commissioners who enforced the law were paid more for returning a suspected slave than for freeing him, inevitably skewing the law in favor of Southern slaveholders. In many cases, legally free blacks were rounded up in northern states as alleged fugitives and dragged into slavery in the South.
Surely among the most odious laws ever enacted, it was, bizarrely, the subject of a speech in front of the State House last week by none other than Bill O’Brien, the former House speaker and potential 2nd District congressional candidate.
“And what is Obamacare?” O’Brien asked a crowd assembled to protest the Affordable Care Act. “It is a law as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that allowed slave owners to come to New Hampshire and seize African Americans and use the federal courts to take them back to federal . . . to slave states.”
Obamacare is a law passed in 2010 with the goal of extending health insurance coverage to nearly all Americans. Among its provisions: Insurers can no longer deny coverage to children (and eventually adults) based on pre-existing conditions, and they can no longer set lifetime limits on coverage for individual customers. All new health plans must cover certain preventive services such as mammograms and colonoscopies without charging a deductible, co-pay or coinsurance. Young adults can stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26. States have the ability to greatly expand health coverage to poor residents under the Medicaid program with federal assistance – assistance that Republicans in New Hampshire are stubbornly resisting, to the extreme detriment of their constituents.
At the heart of the law are new mandates for individuals and employers: Many Americans will be required to purchase health insurance. Many employers will be required to provide it to their workers. These are the rules that O’Brien apparently finds onerous. But the idea behind them is sound: Without insurance, sick people still get treated, and the rest of us end up paying for their care. The more people who are insured, the fairer the system and the smaller the cost to the rest of us. When then-Gov. Mitt Romney first championed such a law in Massachusetts, it was described as a system based on “personal responsibility.”
The federal health care law is not perfect. No doubt there will be complications as the most dramatic portions take effect. No doubt there will be room for improvement. But its purpose is to give Americans that which is available in most of the rest of the industrialized world: the assurance that if they get sick, they will have access to decent health care at an affordable price.
To compare that to a law intended to uphold the rights of whites to hold blacks as chattel is nothing short of obscene.