The roots of U.S. vaccine mandates predate both the U.S. and vaccines.
As disease and death reigned around them, some Americans declared that they would never get vaccinated and raged at government efforts to compel them. Anti-vaccination groups spread propaganda about terrible side effects and corrupt doctors. State officials tried to ban mandates, and people made fake vaccination certificates to evade inoculation rules already in place.
The years were 1898 to 1903, and the disease was smallpox. News articles and health board reports describe crowds of parents marching to schoolhouses to demand that their unvaccinated children be allowed in, said Michael Willrich, a professor of history at Brandeis University, with some even burning their own arms with nitric acid to mimic the characteristic scar left by the smallpox vaccine.
“People went to some pretty extraordinary lengths not to comply,” said Professor Willrich, who wrote “Pox: An American History,” a book about the civil liberties battles prompted by the epidemic.
As the coronavirus overwhelms hospitals across the South and more than 650,000 Americans — an increasing number of them children — lie dead, the same pattern is emerging. On Thursday, President Biden announced that he would move to require most federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated and, more sweepingly, that all employers with 100 or more employees would have to mandate vaccines or weekly testing. Colleges, businesses and local governments have enacted mandates at a steady pace, and conservative anger has built accordingly.
On Monday, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, tweeted that vaccine mandates were “un-American.” In reality, they are a time-honoured American tradition.
But to be fair so is public fury over them.
“We’re really seeing a lot of echoes of the smallpox era,” said Elena Conis, an associate professor and historian of medicine at the University of California, Berkeley. “Mandates elicit resistance. They always have.”
The roots of U.S. vaccine mandates predate both the U.S. and vaccines. The colonies sought to prevent disease outbreaks by quarantining ships from Europe and sometimes, in the case of smallpox, requiring inoculations: a crude and much riskier predecessor to vaccinations in which doctors rubbed live smallpox virus into broken skin to induce a relatively mild infection that would guard against severe infection later. They were a source of enormous fear and anger.
In January 1777, George Washington mandated inoculations for the soldiers under his command in the Continental Army, writing that if smallpox were to break out, “we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.” Notably, it was in large part the soldiers’ desires that overcame his resistance to a mandate.
“They were the ones calling for it,” said Andrew Wehrman, an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University who studies the politics of medicine in the colonial and revolutionary eras. “There’s no record that I have seen — and I’ve looked — of any soldier turning it down, protesting it.”
Buoyed by the success of the mandate, Washington wrote to his brother in June 1777 that he was upset by a Virginia law restricting inoculations. “I would rather move for a Law to compel the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limited time under severe Penalties,” he wrote.The Coronavirus Pandemic ›
Updated Sept. 15, 2021, 9:48 p.m. ET
Over the next century, many local governments did exactly that. Professor Wehrman this week tweeted an example of what, in an interview, he said was a “ubiquitous” phenomenon: The health board in Urbana, Ohio, Jordan’s hometown, enacted a requirement in 1867 that in any future epidemic, “the heads of families must see that all the members of their families have been vaccinated.”
But by the end of the 1800s, the opposition was louder and more widespread. Some states, particularly in the West, introduced laws prohibiting vaccine mandates. Others narrowly passed mandates after intense debate.
The reasons for resistance were myriad: Some Americans opposed mandates on the grounds of personal liberty; some because they believed lawmakers were in cahoots with vaccine makers; and some because of safety concerns that were, to be fair, more grounded in reality than the modern equivalent. Vaccines then were not regulated the way they are now, and there were documented cases of doses contaminated with tetanus.
The government’s response resembled what, today, are wild conspiracy theories. Contrary to the assertions of some on the far right, the Biden administration has never suggested going door to door to force people to take coronavirus vaccines. But in the 1890s and 1900s, that actually happened: Squads of men would enter people’s homes in the middle of the night, breaking down doors if necessary, to inject people with smallpox vaccines.
Legally speaking, the Supreme Court resolved the issue of mandatory vaccinations in 1905, ruling 7-2 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that they were constitutional.
The Constitution “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint,” Justice John Marshall Harlan, known for defending civil liberties, wrote. “Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”
In the court of public opinion, there was no such resolution.
The polio vaccine was less controversial, mainly because it wasn’t initially mandated and because it had been funded by a widely respected nonprofit: the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now called the March of Dimes. This reduced opposition based on mistrust of pharmaceutical companies, and most parents willingly got their children vaccinated. The measles vaccine, too, was not particularly controversial because mandates were not initially enforced.
“Nobody was enforcing vaccination, and so it simply didn’t elicit that mistrust,” Professor Conis said. In the smallpox era, by contrast, “sceptical people said, ‘Well, why are we doing this? It just benefits the companies making the vaccine and the doctors administering the vaccine, and why should we trust any of them?’”
But the fear and anger came roaring back with the introduction of childhood vaccination mandates in the 1970s. By 1980, all 50 states required schoolchildren to be vaccinated against an array of diseases.
None of it is new, but one thing distinguishes today’s anti-vaccination protesters from those of the past. The opposition was always political. It wasn’t always partisan.
“There are plenty of echoes today: There are liberty claims, there are strong sentiments about parental rights, there are concerns about the science, there are concerns about the profit involved,” Professor Willrich said. “But this party divide in terms of who is most likely to be hesitant or refuse a vaccine mandate is really, I think, something of our own 21st-century moment.”
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