On March 11, 2021, the anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown, President Joe Biden remarked in his first prime time address that we Americans “can not let our guard down” if we are to “begin to mark our independence from this virus.” Invoking this rhetoric of freedom, Biden urged Americans to take the vaccines as they became available to the general public. While the role of the government in encouraging vaccinations is highly debated today, government encouragement and medical mandates meant to combat deadly viruses have roots in the founding of the United States. Amid so much uncertainty and controversy regarding the best course of action, a look back at one of our most celebrated Founding Fathers may give us the guidance we need to take a more unified step forward.
246 years ago, the recently-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army George Washington wrote in a letter to Congress that the army “shall continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.” One might expect that Washington’s declaration referred to the British Redcoats or Navy. However, in this early stage of the war, one of Washington’s greatest challenges was an enemy that was just as deadly and more unpredictable than the British forces: smallpox.
Having firsthand experience with this disease, Washington and his fellow generals were aware of how the spread of smallpox could dismantle his under-supplied and inexperienced army before even seeing combat. One of the first major military initiatives of the Revolutionary War, the Invasion of Quebec, saw the American expeditionary force devastated by smallpox. British soldiers inside Quebec sent out smallpox-infected civilians and prostitutes to the besieging Americans, killing or wounding thousands of soldiers.
In Europe, inoculation was far more widespread than in the colonies, which meant most British soldiers were immune to smallpox. In the late 18th century, protection against smallpox was a crude procedure of inoculation in which pus from an infected individual would be scratched into the skin of a healthy patient to induce a minor case. Inoculation was not perfect, recovery could be long and the side effects were often severe. However risks aside, Washington enacted a bold military strategy: mandatory inoculation.
In January 1777, Washington ordered Dr. William Shippen to inoculate every soldier who had never had the disease. “Necessity not only authorized but seems to require the measure,” Washington wrote, “for should the disorder infect the army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we should have more to dread from it, than the sword of the enemy.” In taking this course of action, Washington subjected his army to what was then a risky medical treatment for the greater common good of the nation. The forward-thinking strategy prevented the dream of independence from dying in a smallpox-infected cradle.
While it is not easy to say what Washington would make of the COVID-19 vaccine and the debates surrounding it, it is clear that he, and the Continental Congress, were, in a time of crisis, willing to place their bets with what was considered the modern science of their day. In our present crisis, the development of the mRNA technologies used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines is the best current solution modern science has to offer. For Washington, as a man of the enlightenment who valued science and reason, the choice of encouraging, and even mandating, the COVID-19 vaccine would likely appear to him as the best course of action. With that in mind, Washington’s historic action to prevent a smallpox crisis may provide a persuading example to unvaccinated Americans who continue to hold out and prolong the pandemic.