The United States owes its existence as a nation in part to a vaccination mandate.
In 1777, smallpox was a problem for the neglected American army so great that George Washington thought it might jeopardize the revolution. One outbreak had already resulted in an American defeat in the Battle of Quebec. To prevent even more, Washington ordered vaccinations – silently so the British wouldn’t hear how many Americans were sick – for any troops who hadn’t yet had the virus.
It worked. Smallpox cases declined and Washington’s army survived a war of attrition against the most powerful country in the world. The vaccination mandate, as Ron Chernow wrote in his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington, was “as important as any military action Washington took during the war.”
In the decades that followed, vaccination treatments became safer (the War of Independence method killed 2 percent or 3 percent of recipients), and mandates became more common in the military and beyond. They also tended to generate hostility among a small minority of Americans.
A pastor from Cambridge, Massachusetts took his opposition to a smallpox vaccine to the Supreme Court in 1905 before losing. Fifty years later, while most Americans were celebrating the start of a mass polio vaccination campaign, there were still some deviants. A United Press article that appeared in newspapers across the country on April 13, 1955 reported:
Hundreds of doctors and nurses stood ready to begin the daunting task of vaccinating millions of children across the country.
However, some problems developed. In Montgomery County, Maryland, 4,000 parents flatly refused to give their children the vaccine. Two Indiana counties argued that the plan smelled like socialized medicine.
Lots of vaccinations, few layoffs
We are now going through this cycle again. The deadline for many workplace mandates came this week, which often requires people to have received a Covid-19 vaccine or to be laid off. In California, the deadline for healthcare workers is today.