By Maurizio Valsania
President Joe Biden has mandated vaccines for a large part of the American workforce, a requirement that has prompted protest from those opposed to the measure.
Meanwhile, a similar move in New York City to enforce vaccinations has resulted in more than a dozen businesses’ being fined for flouting the rules.
The basic idea behind the objections: Such mandates, which also extend to requirements to wear masks and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, are a breach of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
The objectors ask: Aren’t mandates un-American?
As a scholar who has spent decades trying to unravel the hurdles that mark the beginning of this nation, I offer some facts in response to that question – a few very American facts: Vaccination mandates have existed in the past, even though they have similarly sparked popular rage.
No vaccination foe, no latter-day fan of the Gadsden Flag’s “DONT TREAD ON ME” message, would ever gain the posthumous approval of the American founders.
George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest of the group cultivated different visions about America. But they agreed on one principle: They were unrelenting on the notion that circumstances often emerge that require public officials to pass acts that abridge individual freedoms.
Keen sense of civic duty
Most of the founders, to begin with, were slave owners, not especially concerned about trampling over and abridging the rights of the persons they held in bondage. But even when they dealt with those they deemed to be their peers, American citizens, their attitude was rather authoritarian – at least by today’s standards.
In 1777, during the American Revolution, Washington had his officers and troops inoculated against smallpox. The procedure was risky. But for Washington, the pros outweighed the cons. It was an order, an actual mandate, not an option that individuals could discuss and eventually decide.
“After every attempt to stop the progress of the small Pox,” Washington explained to the New York Convention, “I found, that it gained such head among the Southern Troops, that there was no possible way of saving the lives of most of those who had not had it, but by introducing innoculation generally.”
During the summer of 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, then the American capital. It shattered the city’s health and political infrastructure. Food supplies dwindled; business stopped. Government – federal, state and municipal – was suspended. Within just three months, 5,000 out of nearly 55,000 inhabitants died of the infection.
Public hysteria took off. Philadelphians at first pinned the outbreak on the arrival of refugees from the French colony of Saint-Domingue who were escaping that island’s slave revolution.
But there was also heroism. Black clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, for example, tirelessly transported the sick, administered remedies and buried the dead.
Urged on by Gov. Thomas Mifflin, the Pennsylvania state Legislature imposed sweeping quarantines. And almost everyone complied.
Henry Knox, then the U.S. secretary of war, didn’t object. Knox had fought during the Revolution. He had risked his life on many battles. He had developed a keen sense of what “civic duty” means: “I have yet six days quarantine to perform,” he wrote to President Washington, “which of the choice of evils is the least.”
‘Without a flinch’
The epidemic didn’t abate as quickly as expected. By September 1794 the yellow fever lingered in Baltimore, where it had spread from Philadelphia. In 1795 it reached New York City.
One John Coverdale, from Henderskelfe, Yorkshire, England, wrote President Washington a long letter. He advocated more drastic measures, including three weeks of quarantine and policemen strategically placed in every corner to hinder people from passing from zone to zone; and he wanted people “to carry with them certificates either of their coming from places not infected or of their passing the line by permission.”
In other words, a quarantine, lockdown and vaccine passports.
No politician we know of at the time considered such measures un-American. In May of 1796, Congress adopted, and President Washington signed, the first federal quarantine law. There wasn’t much controversy. In 1799, Congress passed a second and more restrictive quarantine law. President Adams signed it without a flinch.
‘Ambition’ vs. public good
So apparently it’s not certificates, quarantines and vaccine mandates that are un-American, as some maintain today.
The argument that individual rights trump the greater good is un-American, or at least out of step with American tradition. It’s an attitude that the founders would have put under the encompassing banner of “ambition.”
“Ambition” comes when individuals are blinded by their little – or large – egotisms and personal interests. They lose track of higher goals: the community, the republic, the nation. In the most severe cases, ambition turns anti-social.
Ambitious individuals, the founders were sure, are persons stripped of their membership in a community. They choose to relegate themselves to their solitary imagination. They have become slaves to their own opinions.
Alexander Hamilton was tired of being turned into the butt of endless accusations: “It shall never be said, with any color of truth, that my ambition or interest has stood in the way of the public good.”
When facing a quarantine, a mandate, or similar momentary abridgments of their liberties, many Americans today react the same way Hamilton did. Like Hamilton, they look beyond themselves, their opinions, their interests. They don’t lose sight of the public good.
Others remain ambitious.
Maurizio Valsania is Professor of American History at the University of Turin.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Ray W. says
John Adams, our second president, knew of the smallpox vaccine prior to the Revolution. As a young father and husband, his letters reveal that he voluntarily endured the vaccination process, which at the time required two inoculations. Adams wanted to do this to learn about the side effects before having his children vaccinated. In Adams’ case, his letters reveal just how sick he became, yet when he recovered, his children received the vaccine.
To anyone who believes in the original intent of our founding fathers, please note that individual rights were not contained in the language of the proposed Constitution when first published. During the constitutional convention, some argued for insertion of individual rights language, but others argued that listing individual rights could be interpreted as limiting such rights to only those listed. While it is not clear why individual rights were not included in the draft of the Constitution, it can be argued that those who did not want to limit the scope of individual rights by listing them won out. As a more modern example, the right to privacy is not listed in any of the many amendments to the federal Constitution, but Floridians voted to add a right to privacy to Florida’s Bill of Rights.
During the ratification process, a number of states agreed to ratify the Constitution after listing certain individual rights they wanted added to it after ratification. Although many proposed rights were variations on the same theme, over 30 differently phrased individual rights were proposed during the ratification process. Our first congress passed our Bill of Rights and lawmakers immediately began arguing over the true intent of our founding fathers. I have written of this several times, but James Madison, who is considered by many constitutional experts as the most intellectual of those who were sent to attend the constitutional convention, spoke to Congress in 1796, explaining his belief that he should not be considered as a founding father. His reasoning? Madison stated that, while he wrote the draft of the proposed Constitution, he considered it a dead document when it was published; it had no life, he said, until those elected to debate ratification of the Constitution passed it, breathing life into the previously dead document.
Using Madison’s reasoning, Thomas Jefferson cannot be considered to be a founding father of our Constitution, as he was not elected by his peers to attend Virginia’s ratifying convention; he may have been out of the country at the time, as he was a diplomat assigned to France from 1785-89. Of the 168 Virginian’s who attended the ratification convention, only 89 voted to ratify. With 79 voting against ratification, it was a close call.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
You cant compare Small pox and Yellow fever to Covid.
These terrible diseases killed millions. A better comparison is to compare Covid-19 to the common Flu as both have similar mortality rates. We know the cause, there is a cure, and medical treatment has improved. This crisis has been hijacked.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Ray W. says
Timothy Patrick Welch has already placed himself on the wrong side of the argument, but he just can’t see it. First of all, Covid-19 has already killed millions around the world.
But, Timothy Patrick Welch has a point. Smallpox and yellow fever were endemic diseases, by definition, at least until vaccinations came along. Both smallpox and yellow fever have been eradicated by vaccines. Concerning the flu, no nation or associated medical facility has ever been able to produce a vaccine that allows for the eradication of the flu. The flu, too, has long been defined as an endemic disease. Without a vaccine, Covid-19 would likely be progressing towards a definition of an endemic disease. But Covid-19 is not yet an endemic disease, it is a pandemic disease. Thus, any comparison of the flu to Covid-19 by Timothy Patrick Welch is flawed from the start. So long as Covid-19 remains defined as a pandemic disease, it means that there remains a possibility that the virus can be eradicated, just as the first SARS version of Covid was eradicated, just as smallpox was eradicated, just as yellow fever was eradicated. In that scenario, Timothy Patrick Welch loses the argument, and badly so. If additional variants of the Covid-19 virus begin to emerge, some with mutations sufficient to render current vaccines significantly less effective, at a rate faster than we can develop new vaccines, there may come a time when the definition for Covid-19 will be changed to an endemic disease. If that occurs, Timothy Patrick Welch will be right in comparing Covid-19 to the flu, and it will be reasonable to predict that additional millions of people will die from a disease that we still have a chance to eradicate.
Right now, Timothy Patrick Welch loses the argument on all points. Nice try, though, Timothy Patrick Welch. Great quote by Churchill. It might even apply some time in the future, just not today.
Mike Cocchiola says
Radical Republicans like DeSantis are not constrained by the logic of their arguments. They are not bounded by constitutional language or intent. They are not deterred by laws or ethics or morality and care nothing for hypocrisy or irony. They care only for victory in their culture wars by any means.
Radical Republicans are the American Nazi Party.
Yup, the Republicans are trying to control every detail of your life.
With the Democrats controlling both the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, that’s not really true, is it?
Actually Moscow Mitch and his “party of no” are controlling the senate.
Dedicated American says
I take offense to your remark Mike Cocchiola. You and our government are following the road of the communist party. DICTATORSHIP! We in this country have our Constitution to protect us from what is happening in our country right down into Our counties. Read the constitution and learn the factual interpretation of it. There is absolutely NO comparison to President Trump and Joe Biden. Do you believe the one World 🌎 Government is at your back door. Look up Agenda 21. Look up Cold Spring Harbor Labs and their work on Eugenics.
Dedicated American, you need more education. Communism and a dictatorship are two entirely different forms of government. I have little faith that you yourself have either read or understand the constitution. Your mention of the one world government belies your conspiracy theory background.
What many Republicans-led by the ilk of Trump, SSantis, Abbott and others are doing is attempting to consolidate power into an authoritarian form of government similar to the German Nazi party preWWII. They are trying to dismantle our democracy and restrict voting rights and the voting process in an attempt to ensure their power. That should scare you more than anything.
The Dude says
So much Qanon to unpack here..
Turn off OAN… that shit has rotted your brain.
God I miss the days when the old cranks had to actually leave the house and go to John Birch society meetings to yell at the clouds together…
The internets makes being stoopid entirely too easy.
Dennis C Rathsam says
OH NO !!!! Sir, Joe Biden in 10 months killed prosperous America. Nazi,s indeed PELOSI, SCHUMER, & SANDER…THE GUESTOPO!
Vaccination of the military is different than vaccinating the general populus. A military degraded by disease is useless.
Philadelphia government instituted quarantines. What type of quarantines? Passing from one zone to another zone with papers is not a lockdown.
Due process is the way to take our freedoms away.
A military degraded by forced separation is equally devastating to our nations defense preparedness!
Sgt Steele says
A military who installs “transgender freaks” as top leaders is soon to FAIL. Our military has become low lifes, gays,trans, criminals……. DISGUSTING……. Parents do not let you children join the military UNTIL its CLEANED OUT !!!
Well didn’t you just lay your hateful cards out on the table for all to read.
An officer maybe, but no gentleman.
Neither of your cited quarantine laws were about lockdowns. They are about keeping ships and cargo out of an area.
A Concerned Observer says
It is clear to me that Governor DeSantis is more concerned with the financial and political aspects resulting from this pandemic than he is with the health of the population and halting spread of the virus. Again, “Follow the money”. This is not a Trump thing or a Republican thing, simply a political and financial thing.
Without an economy, what population is left?
A Concerned Observer says
Without a population, how can there be an economy?
Zachary Scott says
[Caution: the comment below is misleading. DeSantis did not make the antibody treatment available. The federal government did, free, though DeSantis almost daily took credit for it at campaign appearances without acknowledging the federal government’s role, until late September, when he blamed the government of cutting back on doses and warned of “huge disruptions.” Neither disruptions nor shortages followed. Do not use this site to spread disinformation. Thanks.—FL]
And yet he made the antibody treatment available >free< to anyone that wanted it, which IMO flies in the face of your argument, he also protected the most vulnerable at the on-set of this unnecessary plandemic; there have been treatments the whole time.
Florida is and will continue to recover faster than most states.
Ray W. says
The innumerate Zachary Scott commenting about statistics, stating that Florida is recovering faster than other states. As an example of how misleading Zachary Scott is, a small company with 10 clients that adds one can advertise that its client base has grown by 10%. A larger company with 100 clients that adds one client has to advertise that it is growing by 1%. Thus, the smaller company can claim it is growing faster than the larger company. Conversely, Florida, with one of the highest rates of Covid-19 in the country allows Zachary Smith to claim that it is recovering faster than other states, but only because Florida has farther to fall.
As for “plandemic”, Zachary Scott’s belief will never prove or disprove a fact, but the term does have a certain sound to it, as if he made up the term to hear his head roar. All the term proves is the existence of a hypothesis (claim) that Zachary Scott does not appear to have tested. There are those who are pursuing the claim that the virus is man-made. One day they may be able to prove it. Since all viruses can mutate, either in nature or in a lab, the opposing point, that it is a naturally-occurring virus remains a viable argument. Based on what Zachary Scott has provided (nothing), he might be right, he might be wrong. Without his testing his hypothesis or providing proof that someone else adequately tested it, Zachary Scott will never know that answer for himself, but it appears that he will always believe it. He does possess the right to wander through life fooling himself. This may be one of his wandering moments.
Zachary Scott says
I guess the numbers about Florida aren’t accurate, and Florida isn’t doing better than all other states; so much for accuracy.
58,803. 58,803 deaths from the ‘protections’ provided by DeSantis. 58,803 deaths which could have been mitigated through responsible leadership. 58,803 lost mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends. 58,803.
Really, you blame DeSantis for all those deaths? Tell me exactly how many died that had no pre-existing medical issues. According to the New York Times, Florida ranks 15th with .06 per 100,000, yet is the 3rd most populated state. So tell me, and everyone else here, how did DeSantis single handedly kill 58,803 people.
Good comments people about the constitution. Good comments about the pandemic and the endemic. As for as freedom when the constitution was written I think they were talking about the freedom of White folks especially White men. Little to no freedoms for the people of color. The freedom we do have is gradually being taken away by the Government especially the Repubs.
Zachary Scott says
Both the DNC >&< RNC are taking away our rights, this Left vs. Right tribalism only hurts the average American.
Curious what right specifically were you referring to when you said its the "Repubs?"