History

Commanders-in-Contagion

A statue of George Washington outside the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond, Va., February 8, 2019 (Jay Paul/Reuters)
What America’s Founders can teach us about COVID-19

The United States was born amid an epidemic. As our Founding generation struggled to free themselves from tyranny, they faced a foe even deadlier than the king’s troops: a virus. America’s triumph over that unseen enemy can serve as a blueprint for our current battle.

Smallpox swept the United States during the Revolutionary War. The most dreaded illness of the era, smallpox was an incredibly contagious virus that caused a high fever and rashes, killing 17 percent of those infected. Like COVID-19, the virus was readily spread person-to-person by inhalation, with the infected showing symptoms within 14 days of exposure.

Much like today, the virus not only sickened the civilian population but also ravaged the U.S. servicemen, leaving them vulnerable to enemy attack. During the Battle of New York City in 1776, the smallpox epidemic grew so dire that Commander-in-Chief George Washington described it as more dangerous than “the Sword of the Enemy.” And he was correct — for every soldier killed in battle, an estimated ten others died from disease.

Also like today, there were concerns that adversaries might use disease against us. The British intentionally sent infected prisoners back to American communities to spread the scourge. In fact, one British officer recommended, “Dip arrows in matter of smallpox and twang them at the American rebels.” (Guns and bullets were almost universal at this point; this measure was intended specifically to injure and infect.) Whether actively spreading the virus or merely taking advantage of its natural spread, Washington’s enemies sought to leverage America’s weakened state.

Despite being centuries of technological advancement behind us, our first commander-in-chief’s approach to the epidemic parallels today’s: Washington first moved to seal off his troops from foreign entrants, then he checked for symptoms within his camp and quarantined anyone suspected of being infected.

In the end, however, the quarantines proved difficult to enforce and ultimately unable to stop the spread, so inoculation emerged as the only real solution. But Washington faced fierce opposition. Inoculation was a grotesque procedure that involved first scratching the patient’s arm and inserting pus from a smallpox victim into the healthy person’s wound. This would cause the patient to contract a case far milder than if he were to inhale the virus or otherwise catch it more naturally. But he would enjoy lasting immunity.

While this inoculation procedure had been used in India for thousands of years, it was relatively new to the West. Many feared it would just spread the severe version of the disease. New York’s legislature forbade inoculation and even jailed a doctor caught treating Washington’s troops.

But Washington followed the science: He had witnessed the successes other communities enjoyed with inoculation and asserted his authority as commander-in-chief to push for the procedure with his troops. This move was unprecedented: The American army became the first in history to employ wholesale smallpox inoculation.

Washington’s most important order during the war was not military, it was medical. But after his success in saving his troops, Washington never forced civilians to inoculate; he instead led them by example. He and the Founders believed in permitting individuals to prudently exercise their liberties, operating in their best interests while also collaborating with one another to protect their neighbors.

Like today, the epidemic fomented discord over the nation’s response. While politicians argued, different states advocated varying approaches. Sparsely populated rural Virginia faced different circumstances from the city centers of New York or Boston. And each reacted accordingly to balance health risks with longer-term consequences for liberties and livelihoods.

Laws were local. Massachusetts required the head of each household to report any infections and raise a red flag outside their doors. North Carolina built “pesthouses” to isolate the infected in remote areas. Hard-hit South Carolina even put houses of the infected under armed guard. New Hampshire checked all visitors arriving from Boston.

In the end, our disharmony was also our strength: Rather than a single, top-down approach to the crisis, different communities employed diverse tactics tailored to their area’s specific needs. As with Washington’s inoculation saga, they learned from one another’s setbacks and successes as though in a living laboratory. And the American experiment triumphed.

Rather than broad, government-imposed shutdowns, the Founding generation relied on individuals’ coming together in the manner that made sense locally. Port cities made incoming ships quarantine. The sick closed their shops. Children and elderly were separated from the less vulnerable. But just as market forces drove people away from typically crowded fish markets, printers kept operating, blacksmiths kept working, farmers kept to their fields, and so on according to particular circumstances.

The Founding generation did not see it as the government’s role to meddle in healthy people’s businesses and communities, nor did they trust their politicians to make the correct call. The Founders valiantly fought against the overreaches of the British Crown. And they were eager not to trade in their hard-won freedoms for another overbearing government. Instead, they established a great American experiment of self-government that respected the individual.

Of course, things are different today, from technology to ease of travel to the expansion of government assistance. And no one is advocating that we simply replicate the medical directives of the 18th century. But the analogies to our Founding period are instructive, and the overarching questions of economic and political freedoms remain. Times change. But Americans’ fundamental rights need not.

As Washington put it, we must “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.” That means responding to this latest crisis while guarding those liberties that our Founders fought to establish.

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