While COVID-19 Delta variant cases rise and cities like Washington and Los Angeles return to mask mandates, many Americans remain persistently divided about the best tool we have to leave such measures behind: vaccines. The unifying example the Founders set almost 250 years ago, when a deadlier disease required riskier measures, should serve as a model for today. By inoculating themselves then, they may have saved the Republic.
General George Washington was fighting two foes when the Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge: the British and smallpox. Washington had seen the disease devastate American troops during the Quebec Campaign, and he knew that the Revolution would be dead in its cradle if his own troops fell ill. So America’s future first president got his command inoculated in our first such large-scale, government-led campaign. Washington’s actions saved his army to fight another day.
Washington wasn’t the only Founder who believed in the efficacy of the 18th century’s version of vaccines. While the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams was en route to Boston with a mission to get the Adams children smallpox inoculations. Nine-year-old John Quincy Adams “stood the operation manfully.”
John Quincy’s fortitude was impressive given what smallpox inoculations required. The procedure involved taking pus from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of a healthy patient to induce a minor case. Recovery could be long and side effects severe. Clinical trial data published in peer-reviewed journals about more benign and technologically sophisticated mRNA COVID vaccines that, as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, reduce hospitalizations due to breakthrough infections to 0.004 percent and deaths to 0.001 percent, were a long way off.
It wasn’t just the risks that gave people pause — Thomas Jefferson was once skeptical of doctors in general. He wrote in 1799 that “the state of medicine is worse than total ignorance.” With new evidence, he changed his mind. In 1801, British doctor Edward Jenner published a paper about the use of cowpox to create a smallpox vaccine, giving us the word vaccine from the Latin “vacca” for cow. Jefferson studied this work. That summer, the third president vaccinated Monticello, including his family and the people he enslaved.
Two years later, when Lewis and Clark were readying for their expedition, President Jefferson told them to bring smallpox vaccines and to “instruct and encourage” Native Americans they would meet about the importance of vaccination. It was a kind of vaccine diplomacy, and Jefferson understood as well that uncontrolled viral spread endangered Americans’ health.
Jefferson’s successor shared his enthusiasm for vaccines. Even at the height of the War of 1812, Congress passed and President James Madison signed “An Act to Encourage Vaccination.” Fraudsters had been selling fake smallpox vaccines, so the federal government appointed an agent to ensure the authenticity of doses and gave authority to distribute vaccines to US citizens free of charge through the mail.
When vaccines against COVID-19 are approved for Americans under 12, parents will have to make decisions about getting the shot again, in consultation with trusted medical professionals. It’s a choice like the one Benjamin Franklin made for his son Francis “Franky” Franklin. Though a believer in the power of medicine, Franklin didn’t give his son the inoculation because he was what we would now describe as immunocompromised. Franky died of smallpox in 1736. Benjamin Franklin later wrote, “I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given [smallpox] to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation.”
It’s impossible to know what the Founders would make of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they studied diseases like smallpox and believed that one day such scourges could end on the ash heap of history. Writing of the smallpox vaccine, Jefferson declared, “Every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one evil the [more] is withdrawn from the condition of man: and contemplating the possibility that future improvements & discoveries, may still more & more lessen the catalogue of evils.”
The eradication of smallpox in 1980 was a triumph. The fact that, less than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, multiple safe and effective vaccines exist — most made in America — is the kind of “improvement & discovery” many of the Founders would have likely applauded. From the shot heard ’round the world to today’s shots in arms, they would take pride in America’s history of public-health accomplishments.
The Founders fought for and cherished their freedom, and they had good reason to be distrustful of central authority. They also recognized that vaccines protected their lives and abilities to be free citizens, that the benefits outweigh the risks, and that the government has a role to play in encouraging vaccination.
Americans in 2021 still look to the Founders for answers to questions as contentious as the relationship between church and state, the legitimate powers of government, and the meaning of the American experiment. We should also look to their views on vaccination. To those who are able to get vaccinated and are still holding out, 1776′s examples are clear.
Jared Cohen is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America.”