The Origins of American Health Libertarianism

59 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2012 Last revised: 6 May 2013

See all articles by Lewis A. Grossman

Lewis A. Grossman

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: April 5, 2012


This Article examines Americans’ enduring demand for freedom of therapeutic choice as a popular constitutional movement originating in the United States’ early years. In exploring extrajudicial advocacy for therapeutic choice between the American Revolution and the Civil War, this piece illustrates how multiple concepts of freedom in addition to bodily freedom bolstered the concept of a constitutional right to medical liberty.

There is a deep current of belief in the United States that people have a right to choose their preferred treatments without government interference. Modern American history has given rise to movements for access to abortion, life-ending drugs, unapproved cancer treatments, and medical marijuana. Recently, cries of “Death Panels” have routinely been directed against health care reform proposals that citizens believe would limit the products and procedures covered by government health insurance. Some of the most prominent contemporary struggles for health freedom have been waged in court. But other important recent battles for freedom of therapeutic choice have taken place in other forums, from legislative hearings to Food and Drug Administration advisory committee meetings to public demonstrations.

This attitude of therapeutic libertarianism is not new. Drawing mainly on primary historical sources, this Article examines arguments in favor of freedom of therapeutic choice voiced in antebellum America in the context of battles against state medical licensing regimes. After considering some anti-licensing arguments made before independence, it discusses the views and statements of Benjamin Rush, an influential founding father who was also the most prominent American physician of the early national period. The Article then analyzes the Jacksonian-era battle against medical licensing laws waged by the practitioners and supporters of a school of botanical medicine known as Thomsonianism. This triumphant struggle was waged in explicitly constitutional terms, even though it occurred entirely outside of the courts. The Thomsonian campaign thus offers one of the most striking examples of a successful popular constitutional movement in American history. This Article shows that, at its origin, the American commitment to freedom of therapeutic choice was based on notions of not only bodily freedom, but also economic freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of inquiry. Finally, this Article considers ways in which this early history helps illuminate the nature of current struggles for freedom of therapeutic choice.

Keywords: Popular Constitutionalism, Freedom of Choice, Benjamin Rush, Samuel Thomson, Thomsonian, Medical Freedom, Medical Liberty, Medical Licensing

Suggested Citation

Grossman, Lewis A., The Origins of American Health Libertarianism (April 5, 2012). 13 Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics 76 (2013), American University, WCL Research Paper No. 2012-16, Available at SSRN:

Lewis A. Grossman (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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