Politics

Vaccination Mandates Are an American Tradition. So Is the Backlash.

“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 compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties,” he wrote.

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, 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.


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