There seems to be quite a lot of vaccine hesitancy in the United States, with perhaps as many as 35% of adults projected to refuse the COVID-19 vaccination. One argument is – of course – freedom: Why should the government tell us what to do?
The problem with this argument is that the freedom not to be vaccinated is actually quite a new argument in American history, as Servitje, Lincoln and Yamey tell us in their USA Today piece.
While some anti-vaccination groups use the term “medical freedom” to reject preventive measures against COVID-19, our nation’s first leaders were strongly committed to public health, including vaccinations. George Washington ordered mass inoculation of his troops against smallpox to secure a victory against the British in the Revolutionary War.https://amp.usatoday.com/amp/7793607002
However, Servitje et al make a small error in their – otherwise excellent – article, but actually, the truth is even more staggering. In the otherwise excellent article, Servitje et al do not mention that George Washington did not order his troops vaccinated.
George Washington ordered variolation, a procedure that incurred a much higher risk than Jenner’s vaccine which was not introduced until 1796, whereas Washington’s order came in 1775.
As Gareth Williams writes in his excellent Angel of Death book:
“Smallpox kept George Washington’s unprotected army out of British-occupied Boston and later wiped out the American forces besieging Quebec (…) Washington (another scarred victim of smallpox) subsequently decided to order large-scale variolation of the American forces, which abolished their fear of the disease and was probably decisive in enabling them to chase the British out”Angel of Death, page 145
Such was a fear of smallpox that even a pretty scary procedure like variolation was preferred to getting ill. Which in no way diminishes Servitje et al argument, as the risks of complications from COVID-19 vaccines are small compared to the risk of variolation which in turn were minuscule compared to smallpox where the fatality rate could be 90% or greater and nearly 100% is observed in cases of early hemorrhagic smallpox.
Erratum: Washington indeed wrote “inoculation” and Servitje et al never say that he referred to vaccination. This has now been taken into account in the text.