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-honored 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.