column: Why George Washington chose a vaccination mandate | Opinion

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At the start of the War of Independence, George Washington had a communicable disease problem. Smallpox killed his army more effectively than the British.

The great commander regretted that the disease, which had a death rate of one in three, was “more destructive to an army in a natural way than the sword of the enemy”. The sick and quarantined were piling up, weakening his ability to confront British forces.

And so Washington did something extremely unpopular. He ordered the vaccination of his forces.

This is what David Oshinsky recounts in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Oshinsky is the director of medical humanities at New York University Langone Health. His history of polio in the United States won a Pulitzer Prize 15 years ago.

Oshinsky’s story of the scourge Washington has faced and his handling of it is both fascinating as a history lesson and a testimony to our present times. The decisions of President Biden – and American companies – to impose the COVID-19 vaccination are just the latest wildfires to burn in political discourse these days.

It’s more likely than not these days to work for an employer who needs – or will soon require – a vaccination to control the spread of the coronavirus. If you’re an active-duty military, military contractor, healthcare worker, or public-facing job, there’s a good chance you’ve been vaccinated before.

And yet resistance to compulsory vaccination remains strong among those who resist for a number of reasons. More often than not, the unvaccinated strongly believe that they have the freedom to choose whether or not to be vaccinated.

There is a continuing tension of “patriotism” running through this line of thinking – that we have a fundamental right in this country, granted to us by the Founding Fathers – to resist whatever hinders our freedom. According to this belief, individualism supplants the orders of the state. It is again federalism against the rights of states.

Reluctance to vaccinate, of course, is nothing new. Although vaccines have been extremely effective in the past – smallpox has been all but eradicated – some preventable diseases have remained due to delays. Reports of occasional measles outbreaks – 58 years after the first effective vaccine – still appear from time to time, often occurring in tight-knit religious communities who have strong beliefs against such medical interventions.

George Washington also had a lot of vaccine deniers, Oshinsky tells us. Unlike today’s modern vaccines, which have minimal side effects, inoculation then had its own death rate of around 3%. It was an unpleasant process to harvest the pustule from an infected victim and give it to another, who contracted a milder case but lived and gained immunity.

A much safer vaccine came into being in 1796, Oshinsky says, but the meanest procedure had the desired effect. Smallpox has mostly vanished from Washington’s forces, allowing it to fight and win the day for life, freedom, the pursuit of happiness – and the stubbornness of reluctance to vaccinate.

Over the next 100 years, vaccination literally sparked street battles and, much less bloody, legal battles.

Such a legal battle ultimately ended in the United States Supreme Court in 1905. A local pastor defied a smallpox warrant during an outbreak and refused to pay the $ 5 fine.

The complainant, Henning Jacobson, argued that the vaccine was dangerous and that healthy people like him presented little danger to others. And the only ones he could hurt would be other unvaccinated people. Ultimately, Jacobson said, the right to vaccinate rests with the individual, not the state or any other medical authority.

And yet Jacobson lost and it wasn’t close. The Court’s 7-2 decision was categorical.

The Court ruled in its opinion that “in any well-ordered society charged with the duty of preserving the security of its members, the rights of the individual to his liberty 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 public in general may require.

“True freedom for all”, continues the judgment, “cannot exist under the effect of a principle which recognizes each individual the right to use his own (freedom), whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the harm that may be done to others.

And with regard to the Constitution, the court declared that “the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution does not imply an absolute right for each person to be at all times and in all circumstances, fully free from all coercion”.

Since then, the anti-vaccination movement has been an uphill battle. The Jacobson decision has been steadfastly upheld over the years. It exists today as a foundation upon which schools require injections before entering kindergarten and seventh grade. Virtually all health systems require an influenza vaccine each year as a condition of employment for all staff and volunteers, although it is less effective than all COVID-19 vaccines. And the military, like George Washington nearly 250 years ago, mandates vaccinations for a host of diseases, including – now – COVID-19.

The pursuit of life, freedom and happiness are important ideals to uphold and protect – many men and women have died for them in our history – but the very pursuit is compromised by a community whose members, presented with prevention, do not protect themselves from disease, others or even those close to them.

Oshinsky concludes his article in the Wall Street Journal with a passage that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

“I lost one of my sons, a nice four-year-old boy, to smallpox,” Franklin wrote. “I have long bitterly regretted and still regret not having given it to him by inoculation.”

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