What's Work Got To Do With It?      Policy Highlights, 1820-1870

Dorothea Dix & Franklin Pierce

In the 1850's, an intense debate over what role the federal government should play in providing services and support to the mentally disabled was carried out in Congress. The issue pitted Dorothea Dix, a nationally respected advocate for the retarded, against Franklin Pierce, the President and an outspoken critic of federal involvement in state and local issues. Dix had petitioned Congress to sell federal lands to states who in turn would sell the lands again and hold the proceeds in a trust that would pay for the building and administration of several state insane asylums. Despite broad support for the spirit of the plan, Pierce ultimately vetoed it, sympathetically explaining that the bill would set an untenable precedent and draw the federal government into an inappropriate and unconstitutional relationship with the nation’s needy. The character and thoroughness of his veto established the rationale behind government uninvolvement in public health issues into the twentieth century. The following commentary on and text of Pierce’s veto were edited and written by Peter Dobkin Hall, and are provided by the Documentary History of Philanthropy & Voluntarism Project, Program on Non-Profit Organizations, Yale University.

"Despite this stance, Dix had reason to hope that Pierce would look with favor upon her efforts. In his first State of the Union Address, he had described the erection of the asylum for the insane of the District of Columbia and the Army and Navy -- a product of her agitations -- in highly complimentary terms. Motivated by a "liberal spirit" and its arrangements informed "with the large experience furnished within the last few years in relation to the nature and treatment of the disease," the asylum, Pierce declared, "will prove an asylum indeed to this most helpless and afflicted class of sufferers and stand as a noble monument of wisdom and mercy" [Hall, 217].

The bill Dorothea Dix was urging on Congress proposed that 10,000,000 acres of land be distributed to each of the states as endowments for the care of the insane. Under this plan each state would receive 100,000 acres, with the remainder to be distributed on a ratio determined by its geographical area and representation in Congress. Having campaigned extensively through the states in the decade previous to her federal crusade (by the mid-1840s, she had travelled some 60,000 miles and personally visited over 9,000 insane, epileptic, and idiotic persons throughout the country), she had a wide and warm acquaintance among the nation's politicians. Her influence with congressional leaders led the body to give her an office in the Capitol from which she could lobby for her bill. President Pierce had personally assured her of his interest in the legislation.

The bill completed its passage through Congress on March 9, 1854. "I have lifted up my eyes," wrote Dix to her friend Ann Heath. "My cup runneth over." [Marshall, 149]. Congratulatory messages poured in from friends and supporters around the country. But the President did not sign the legislation. And soon, distressing rumors began to circulate that he would not do so. After months of delay, President Pierce vetoed the bill, justifying his action with an extended argument about the nature and extent of federal power. While most reformers -- including Dix herself -- condemned Pierce's action as typical of "a Northerner with Southern principles (some, indeed, believed that the message had been written by Jefferson Davis), a disinterested reading of the document suggests that there was far more thought and reflection behind it than the kind of reflexive yahooism that so typified the debate over the Smithsonian Institution. The message was an important statement of public policy -- and set forth guidelines for the federal role as a philanthropic agent until well into the twentieth century.”

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Veto