Commanders-in-Contagion

George Washington statue outside the Virginia State Capitol Building in Richmond, Va., Feb 8, 2019. (Jay Paul / Reuters)

What American Founders Can Teach Us About COVID-19.

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

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

As today, the virus has not only made the civilian population sick, but has also afflicted the US military, leaving them vulnerable to enemy attack. During the Battle of New York in 1776, the smallpox epidemic became so severe that Commander in Chief George Washington considered it more dangerous than “the sword of the enemy.” And he was right – for every soldier killed in battle, an estimated ten others died from illness.

As today, there were concerns that opponents might use diseases against us. The British deliberately sent infected prisoners back to American communities to spread the plague. In fact, a British officer advised, “Immerse arrows in smallpox and stab them at the American rebels.” (Guns and bullets were almost universal at this time; this measure was specifically designed to injure and infect.) Whether the virus was actively spread or was only benefiting from its natural spread, Washington’s enemies attempted to take advantage of the weakened state of America.

Despite having gone through centuries of technological advancements, our first commander of the epidemic’s approach parallels that of today: Washington first moved to shut off its troops from foreign newcomers, then checked for symptoms in its camp and placed on hold anyone suspected of being infected.

In the end, however, the quarantines proved difficult to maintain and ultimately unable to stop the spread, so vaccination proved the only real solution. But Washington faced strong opposition. Vaccination was a grotesque procedure in which the patient’s arm was first scratched and pus from a smallpox victim was inserted into the wound of the healthy person. This would lead to the patient taking a much milder case than if they were inhaling the virus or otherwise catching it in a more natural way. But he would enjoy lasting immunity.

Although this vaccination procedure has been used in India for thousands of years, it was relatively new to the West. Many were concerned that it would spread the serious version of the disease. The New York legislature banned vaccination and even imprisoned a doctor who was found treating Washington’s troops.

But Washington followed the science: he had witnessed the successes of other vaccination communities and confirmed his authority as commander in chief to press the procedure with his troops. This move was unprecedented: the U.S. military was the first in history to use large-scale vaccinations against smallpox.

The major Washington order during the war was not military, but medical. But after his success in rescuing his troops, Washington never forced civilians to be vaccinated; he set a good example instead. He and the Founders believed in allowing individuals to exercise their freedoms cautiously, acting in their best interests, and at the same time working together to protect their neighbors.

As today, the epidemic sparked disagreement over the nation’s response. While politicians argued, different states advocated different approaches. The sparsely populated Virginia countryside faced conditions different from the city centers of New York or Boston. And each responded accordingly to balance health risks with long-term consequences for freedoms and livelihoods.

Laws were local. Massachusetts demanded that the head of each household report all infections and raise a red flag for their doors. North Carolina has built “pesthouses” to isolate those infected in remote areas. The badly hit South Carolina even placed the infected homes under armed surveillance. New Hampshire checked all visitors from Boston.

Ultimately, our disharmony was also our strength: instead of a single top-down approach to the crisis, different communities used different tactics tailored to the specific needs of their area. As in Washington’s vaccination story, they learned from each other’s setbacks and successes as if they were in a living lab. And the American experiment was victorious.

Rather than broad government-imposed shutdowns, the Founding generation relied on individuals gathering in ways that made local sense. Port cities have quarantined incoming ships. The sick closed their stores. Children and the elderly were separated from the less vulnerable. But just as market forces chased people away from typically overcrowded fish markets, printers continued to operate, blacksmiths continued to work, farmers remained in their fields, and so on, depending on the specific circumstances.

The Founding generation did not see it as the government’s role to interfere with the businesses and communities of healthy people, nor did they trust their politicians to make the right decision. The Founders fought bravely against the outposts of the British Crown. And they were reluctant to exchange their hard-won liberties for another dominating government. Instead, they set up a large American self-government experiment that respected the individual.

Of course, things are different these days, from technology to travel convenience to expanding government support. And no one advocates simply replicating the medical guidelines of the 18th century. But the analogies to our founding period are instructive, and the overarching questions of economic and political freedoms remain. Times are changing. But Americans’ fundamental rights don’t have to.

As Washington put it, we must “continue to exercise utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.” That means responding to this latest crisis while protecting the freedoms that our founders have fought.

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