A common refrain heard from the chorus of folks who view public health measures as an affront to their rights is, “What would the founders think?”
While speculating about the hypothetical political opinions of people who died a quarter-millennium ago may be a questionable way to govern ourselves today, for those who believe the secrets of liberty lie somewhere in the past, it is worth considering our nation was founded in the midst of an epidemic. This required the founders to wrestle with similarly controversial matters of public health, the successful navigation of which proved critical to our nation’s early successes.
During the American Revolution, a smallpox outbreak in New England hobbled General George Washington‘s ability to wage an aggressive campaign during the Siege of Boston, dragging it on for nearly a year. Washington feared an outbreak among his own troops, which had decimated the Continental Army’s failed Invasion of Quebec, according to an article in the Journal of Military History. Washington would at times only advance with troops immune to smallpox, and eventually ordered a lockdown during the outbreak that prohibited his soldiers from contact with Boston residents, even their own families. Amid rumors British spies were intentionally introducing smallpox to the Continental Army, as was done against Native Americans during the French and Indian War, Washington needed a public health solution to protect his troops.
Fifty years earlier, an African-born Bostonian named Onesimus introduced a traditional African remedy for smallpox to the colonies known as inoculation, which involved the introduction of fluid from the pustule of a smallpox patient into a healthy person’s incision. The individual would contract a mild case of the disease and quarantine until they were no longer infectious, providing permanent immunity to the individual and the best available preventive measure. Although a common practice among Black and Native American populations during the Revolutionary Period, it was controversial among white colonists. In addition to sometimes proving fatal, without proper quarantine procedures it led to community spread. This gave inoculation a dangerous reputation, and vigorous anti-inoculation campaigns prompted its outlaw in Massachusetts, and it was even punishable by death in the Continental Army.
Convinced of the seriousness of the threat of smallpox to the war effort, Washington took action against its spread by reversing prohibitions against inoculation and mandating the procedure for the entire Continental Army. Officers were resistant to the order, and it took months of angry letters from Washington before it was fully implemented. Once the mass inoculation campaign began, Washington systematized social distancing measures to prevent the threat of outbreaks posed by the recently inoculated. Within a year the Continental Army was effectively immune from smallpox, allowing Washington to engage the British uninhibited by the disease that previously hindered his military campaigns. The rest is history.
Notions that today’s public health interventions pose a novel threat to our liberty or are somehow fundamentally un-American are no doubt rooted in passion, but not in reality. Like Washington, we must appreciate that freedom from an oppressive government is not the only freedom worth fighting for. We’re fighting for freedom from unsafe working and classroom conditions, freedom from life and death decisions made when health care is rationed during a spike and freedom from the fear of unknowingly infecting a vulnerable loved one with a virus that is killing too many. And like Washington in the face of opposition, those of us who continue to advocate for public health interventions are indeed patriots, fighting for our freedom against a disease that threatens our very lives and liberty.
Colin Nash is a representative and Democrat representing Boise.