By Lawrence Hatter, associate professor of history
If you are a patriot, you will vaccinate yourself against COVID-19 as soon as it becomes available to you. In doing so, you will follow in the footsteps of George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” who rejected dangerous conspiracy theories and, instead, followed the science to protect the Continental Army from being ravaged by disease. In 1777, General Washington’s bold embrace of an extensive immunization program helped to win the Revolutionary War; in 2021, simply rolling up your sleeve to receive the coronavirus vaccine will help all of us secure our freedom from the horrors of the pandemic.
While we have the mighty arsenal of 21st-century epidemiology to help us wage our war against COVID-19, Washington faced a far more daunting task in his fight against smallpox. Modern vaccines did not exist in the 1770s, but physicians did employ a form of inoculation called variolation to try to lessen the severity of the disease. This involved implanting pustular material from an infectious patient into the wound of an uninfected person. Variolation usually spread a milder form of smallpox, building immunity to the full-blown disease. Still, variolation could claim the lives of as much as 10 percent of Washington’s army.
Words are too often planted in the mouths of the Founders by self-interested politicians, looking to hoodwink their constituents by invoking the authority of Washington, Jefferson and their fellow revolutionaries. Make no mistake: George Washington was pro-inoculation. Moreover, he believed in using the power of the U.S. government to enforce quarantines and programs of mass inoculation to protect public health. It is heartening to see Vice President Mike Pence and President-Elect Joe Biden publicly receive the coronavirus vaccine. No matter what you think of their politics, they both did their patriotic duty. When your turn comes, so must you!