Vaccination, Enlightenment Values, and the Founders

Anti-vaxxers and climate deniers are abandoning America’s founding values.

Ironically, those who most trumpet their allegiance to the Founders often have least in common with their values.

The Founding Fathers were men of the Enlightenment. They shared a belief that reason, free inquiry, and science would better the human condition. They looked to reason as a guide. They sought, in Jefferson’s words, to expunge “every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Medicine was one area where the Enlightenment saw the  potential for reason and science to improve life.  As early as 1742, Voltaire trumpeted the benefits of smallpox inoculation, a practice that preceded Edward Jenner’s invention of modern vaccination. Inoculation used small doses of the smallpox virus itself to create future immunity. Voltaire wrote:

“Out of a hundred people in the world at least sixty have smallpox, and of these sixty, twenty die of it in the flower of their youth and twenty keep the unpleasant marks for ever. . .  Of all those inoculated in Turkey or England not one dies unless he is infirm and predisposed to die anyway, nobody is disfigured, nobody has smallpox a second time, assuming that the inoculation was properly done.”

George Washington put Voltaire’s view into practice. In 1777, he ordered a doctor to inoculate all soldiers in the Continental Army who came through Philadelphia. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure,” he wrote, “for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.” The following month, he wrote to the Continental Congress about his plan:

“The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr Shippen to innoculate the Recuits [sic] as fast as they come in to Philadelphia.”

Today’s generals are more timid than General Washington, afraid to mandate COVID vaccination for the military. The irony is that smallpox inoculation was far more dangerous than any of today’s vaccines, including those against the COVID-19 virus.

Thomas Jefferson was an enthusiastic promoter of the vaccination method discovered by Jenner, which substituted the harmless cowpox virus for the much more dangerous smallpox virus inoculation.

In the 1760s, Thomas Jefferson took a case as a lawyer representing a doctor who had been attacked by his neighbors for using small pox inoculation. Around the same time as Washington’s order, Jefferson served on a Virginia legislative committee that wrote a law safeguarding the ability of doctors to engage in the practice. As president, Jefferson promoted the use of Jenner’s vaccination method.  He wrote Jenner with generous praise:

“You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest. Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived. Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated.”

While James Madison was president, Congress passed — and Madison signed — the 1813 “Act to Encourage Vaccination.”  The law authorized the president to appoint an agent to furnish free vaccination material upon request, and it also provided free use of the mail for vaccination material and communications to and from the agent.

Ironically, many of those who are most vocal in their defense of the Founding Fathers are most hostile to the Enlightenment values of the Founders. Belief in science as a way of improving the human condition was central to the Founders. The vaccination issue shows how far distant the Founders were  from their would-be worshippers. Those anti-Enlightenment — and therefore anti-Founder — attitudes are also key to the rejection of climate science from the same political quarter.  Some today may favor rejection of inconvenient truths, but the Founding Fathers knew better.


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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Vaccination, Enlightenment Values, and the Founders”

  1. What an absurd analogy. COVID is not small pox. An experimental gene therapy for a virus with an IFR of .25% is an abomination and every thinking citizen should be wary of this. Centuries ago there was no Pfizer raking in billions, no Wuhan lab funded with American dollars conducting gain of function research. There are no children dying – on the contrary, there are now more healthy children dying from complications from the vaccine. And now we have studies showing the Covid deaths are not the result of the virus itself, but an immune disorder for which early treatment is highly successful. Treatments which have been banned. So spare me this simplistic and incredibly flawed article.

    1. Lily- Just a few additional facts. Inoculation would never be approved by the FDA today. It involved live smallpox disease and was quite risky, sometimes resulting in small outbreaks. Of course, there were no clinical trials back then. Some people thought doctors only used it as a way to make money, the same as you think about Pfizer. Thomas Jefferson came to the defense of the doctors. He was even more in favor of Jenner’s vaccine when that arrived. Let’s face it, the anti-vaxxers of today would have been totally on the opposite side from Washington and Jefferson.

    2. The miRNA vaccines are NOT gene therapy.
      Children are not dying from the vaccines (mostly they are not even eligible).
      Stop spreading anti-vax misinformation and minimizing the severity of the disease and its effects on society.

      P.S. An IFR of .25% might not seem high, unless your mother or father is one of the fatalities.

  2. Dan, your latest posts on opioid and vaccination appear to be an admission that you have failed to expedite actions to implement solutions to climate change devastation and are trying to change the subject.

    God Help our newest generations now that our best and brightest have given up on fixing the one problem that matters most, if we don’t fix climate change then other things like opioid and pandemic won’t matter because the human race can’t possibly survive the climate change consequences of our political and intellectual leadership failures.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more