“The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr. Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia,” Gen. George Washington, letter to John Hancock, Feb. 5, 1777.
On June 19, 1775, George Washington was commissioned Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, he took command of the troops. Washington was responsible for turning untrained men into an army capable of fighting the British.
Among the problems he faced was a smallpox epidemic infecting Boston and Philadelphia in mid-1776. Washington knew this enemy would be deadlier than the British. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army… we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy,” Gen. George Washington, letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., Jan. 6, 1777
Washington knew that without prompt action, his troops would become sick, many would die, and the Revolution would be lost almost before it began. He took the unprecedented step of ordering that all the troops be inoculated against smallpox. At the time, there was no existing smallpox vaccine.
Instead of vaccination, people were inoculated by a process called variolation. This consisted of sticking a sharp knife into a smallpox pustule from an infected person, then inserting the pus under the skin of a healthy person. The inoculated person would then be protected against smallpox. Fifty troops died during this process, but the rest were protected and able to continue fighting the British.
Imagine if these troops had refused because it was a violation of their freedom to be forcibly inoculated. The British, who were inoculated, would have quickly overcome the Continental Army, the rebellion would have been suppressed and America’s history would be very different.
In our history, public health mandates have repeatedly been issued when necessary. Forced quarantines have been imposed when epidemics broke out. In 1878, Congress passed the National Quarantine Act, “shifting quarantine powers from state to federal government.” This gave the federal government increased powers regarding public health. (Washington Post, Oct. 7, 2014)
In 1905, a smallpox epidemic threatened America. Mandatory vaccination laws were passed. Then, as now, some people protested. In response, the Supreme Court upheld the right of state and local governments to enforce mandatory vaccination laws.
Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, “In every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members, the rights of the individual … may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” (Washington Post, July 30)
This decision was reaffirmed by conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Barrett on Aug. 12 when she upheld the recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit. That court ruled that the University of Indiana had the right to mandate vaccines for staff and students. This clears the way for vaccine mandates by private and governmental entities.
Some vaccine opponents refuse because they don’t trust the vaccines. Their effectiveness is proven by comparing vaccine rates with rates of COVID-19. Sadly, for many, politics are counteracting science. The 22 states with the highest vaccination rates all went for President Joe Biden. In the 18 states with the lowest rates, 17 went for Donald Trump. (NPR, June 9)
Two of those states, Florida and Texas, account for 40 percent of all COVID hospitalizations in the country, with hospitals becoming overwhelmed. Six of those states, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee, have seen a 400 percent increase in COVID-19 cases. (U.S. News & World Report, July 30)
Many of those who refuse vaccinations claim it violates our freedoms for government to require a vaccine. If anyone knew about patriotism and freedom, it was George Washington, the general who won the Revolutionary War. As our first president, he protected our rights. That was Washington’s life work.
Washington put his life on the line for our country. He also believed an inoculation mandate was vital for securing our liberty. Do anti-vaxxers protesting mandates think he was mistaken? Do they imagine they are more patriotic than Washington was? Maybe true patriotism means following his example and vaccinating everyone.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.