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How Founding Fathers helped argue the health-care case at the Supreme Court

The clash of ideas at the core of the Supreme Court debate over Obama’s health-care law is as old as the nation itself, and the spirit of the Founders was present before the assembled justices.

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A protesters holds a copy of the Declaration of Independence at the United States Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, as the court concludes three days of hearing arguments on the constitutionality of President Obama's health care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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US Supreme Court justices probably don’t believe in ghosts, but in the extraordinary arguments conducted this week at the high court could be heard the voices of the Framers of the Constitution.

It wasn’t just Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, or Washington lawyers Paul Clement and Michael Carvin, at the lectern before the assembled justices.

With them in a courtroom crowded with members of the Senate and House, scholars, and lawyers were some of the most outspoken leaders of the founding generation.

If one listened closely their spirit was unmistakably present. With Mr. Verrilli stood Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker, Treasury secretary, and champion of a national government powerful enough to shape its economic future.

With Mr. Clement and Mr. Carvin stood James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both presidents, Virginians, and champions of an experimental form of self-rule in which the national government would be limited to specific areas of nationwide concern, leaving most power to the states and to the people.

To be sure, the case on Tuesday involved the constitutionality of President Obama’s health-care reform law – specifically its mandate that all Americans purchase a government-approved level of health insurance or pay a penalty.

But it was also about something more fundamental, a fierce clash of ideas, dangerous enough to spark a civil war, and as old as the nation itself.

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