The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked controversy over what is or is not a violation of constitutional rights. Typically, those asserting such a violation invoke the image of our Founding Fathers fighting off government tyranny. Such people claim our Founders would have never compromised freedom during a pandemic — yet, history shows these people are wrong. 

If you are in the group of people who claim that Governors Wolf or Murphy forcing your gym to shut is a form of tyranny, then you would be quite disappointed in the actions of George Washington – father of our country. 

Consider the actions of George Washington. During the American Revolution, the colonies were faced with an outbreak of smallpox, threatening the welfare of the colonists as well as the capacity of the Continental Army to fight the British. If you think it is tyranny today to mandate masks be worn, and reference the Founding Fathers as a defense, you would be disappointed to learn that George Washington, in the summer of 1775 (shortly after being given command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts) took strong measures to mitigate the spread of smallpox — including ordering anyone even remotely suspected of having contracted the disease to quarantine in a special hospital. In a letter to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, Washington wrote he was “particularly attentive to the least symptoms of the smallpox.” Additionally, Washington committed to “continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

If you are in the group of people who claim that Governors Wolf or Murphy forcing your gym to shut is a form of tyranny, then you would be quite disappointed in the actions of George Washington – father of our country. 

Moreover, if you feel that being restricted from certain places amounts to oppression, then you would have called Washington a tyrant when he prohibited people from entering the city of Boston as an effort to stop the spread of smallpox. This happened after the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord. As the British occupied Boston, Washington’s camp was set up outside the city along the Charles River. He prohibited any colonist seeking refuge from the British from coming near the camp. “Every precaution must be used to prevent [smallpox] spreading,” Washington declared

Likewise, in March 1776, after the British left Boston, Washington allowed recovered soldiers only to reenter the city. One could only imagine the outcry such a move would cause today. Yet, based on historical analysis, Washington “prevented a disastrous epidemic” said historian Dr. Ann Becker.

Lamenting the epidemic, Washington wrote to Hancock, “I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way.” To stop its spread, Washington took decisive action.

Washington’s measures included forcing troops to participate in a new, experimental, medical technology at the time known as variolations (smallpox inoculations). This procedure was not deemed legal in all of the colonies. It involved making a minor incision on the arm and “inserting a dose of the live virus large enough to trigger immunity but small enough to prevent severe illness or death.” It was this very procedure that killed the son of Britain’s King George III. Given this uncertainty, the Continental Congress forbade Army surgeons from performing variolations. Nonetheless, Washington commanded that all new troops be inoculated. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, 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 from the Sword of the Enemy,” Washington wrote in correspondence to a medical officer. 

Anti-vaxxers today who claim the mantle of liberty might be disappointed to find this out. 

Consider that Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, the beacon of liberty and individual rights, also favored significant government measures to counter a pandemic.

And Washington was strict in his beliefs in his drastic, preventative measures. Stopping the spread of smallpox superseded most everything else. He warned that “any disobedience…will be most severely punished.” He was even known to jail those who violated his orders. 

Washington was not alone. Consider that Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, the beacon of liberty and individual rights, also favored significant government measures to counter a pandemic. Jefferson was an ardent supporter of smallpox inoculation. He believed the government should mandate colonists receive them even as some colonies – such as his native Virginia – objected to them. And, just as today, people objected to these actions by the governments. One such incident, the Norfolk Riots, occurred during the late 1760s. 

Jefferson continued this “commitment to smallpox inoculation” when he was President of the United States. During the summer of 1801, in an effort to stop another spread of smallpox, he had 200 people inoculated including his family, neighbors, and some of his slaves. Those who were inoculated by Jefferson were lucky: they were ultimately spared from the ravages of smallpox. As a direct outgrowth of this experiment, President Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis to take some vaccine on his expedition to find the famed Northwest Passage.

Benjamin Franklin would have also supported government intervention to save lives during a pandemic. Most likely, this would have stemmed from his own personal experience. 

Franklin’s four-year-old son died due to smallpox. He was deeply regretful for the rest of his life he did not inoculate him. He wrote in his autobiography: “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation.”

Additionally, in the 1770s, Franklin had studied the spread of illnesses and had concluded that the spread of an illness occurred “from one another when shut up together in close rooms, coaches, etc. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration.”

As such, if he were alive today, he would have supported social distancing and likely the temporary shutdown of commerce and most activity. Franklin would have seen such things as a necessity of survival, not an infringement of liberty. Afterall, it was Franklin who said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” Founding Father John Adams lamented in 1776. This is indicative of the devastation that accompanies an outbreak of a disease. Our Founders did what was necessary to stop the spread, which is ironic given how many times they have been cited as inspiration for the national protests today. Despite the colonial times of the late 18th century, our Founding Fathers knew then what many seem to ignore now. They recognized the devastating effects of a pandemic and would oppose anyone who suggested that governmentally-enforced precautions represented tyranny. 

Chris Tremoglie attends the University of Pennsylvania and recently completed his honors thesis on “Did Glasnost and Perestroika Cause a Rise in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Soviet Balkans?” He is a summer associate at Broad + Liberty. @chris_tremoglie

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