American political leaders are constitutionally bound to provide for the “general welfare” of the people. Following this logic, vaccination has traditionally been considered a boon. When Thomas Jefferson first heard of the Vaccination Promise, just before taking office as the third President of the United States, he wrote that “every friend of mankind must look with pleasure at this discovery, whereby an evil … is removed from the condition. of man.
While political currents can be volatile, promoting vaccination has long been a bipartisan goal.
But vaccines have never come under a more sustained partisan assault from political leaders than we are seeing now. On the contrary, the Founders, who disagreed on many issues, enthusiastically supported vaccinations, especially Jefferson. And while political currents can be volatile, encouraging vaccination has long been a bipartisan goal.
In contrast, today, as the delta variant increases among the unvaccinated, Republican legislatures and governors are restricting vaccination efforts and, more alarmingly, even the promotion of vaccines to the public. Perhaps the most shocking example is in Tennessee, where the state’s top immunization official was harassed and fired last week after he said Republican lawmakers in the state opposed its efforts to encourage adolescents to get vaccinated.
Some of the first laws of colonial America were restrictions designed to protect the public from epidemic disease, which was considered one of the main duties of government. Epidemics of the disease in the 18th century required an immediate response from authorities who implemented restrictive quarantines, isolated and treated those infected, and, in extreme cases, oversaw the closure of entire communities to control the spread of the disease. disease.
These first epidemic orders were not without criticism. Traders often complained about how quarantines and closures hampered their operations. Slavers worried about the damage an epidemic could cause to the enslaved people on their plantations. The solution? Vaccines. When smallpox vaccination was introduced to the United States, after English physician Edward Jenner published his Smallpox Experiments in 1798, it offered an inexpensive way to prevent epidemics without harming businesses.
No matter how bitter the political climate, vaccines have remained bipartisan. Despite a harshly contested partisan election in 1800 that ultimately saw Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans defeat incumbent Federalist John Adams, Adams and Jefferson hailed the discovery of vaccination.
Jefferson was so enthusiastic that he devised a method of transporting vaccine material over long distances – a feat that was notoriously difficult before refrigeration. After vaccinating several of his slaves, Jefferson requested the vaccinations of some 200 people, himself performing dozens of vaccinations on white family members and Monticello slaves.
Jefferson was so enthusiastic that he developed a method of transporting the vaccine material over long distances.
Jefferson marveled that vaccinated people lacked so little work, telling a Delaware physician in 1801 that “an anvil smiter continued in his place without a moment’s intermission.” Jefferson naively hoped that the “liberal dissemination” of evidence supporting vaccination would lead to its widespread adoption without much government intervention, but vaccinations in the United States began to lag behind more coordinated efforts in other countries.
To correct this, newspapers supporting both political parties supported the Massachusetts law of 1810 known as “The Cow Pox Act,” which stated that it was “the duty of every town, district or plantation” to establish a health council “to supervise the inoculation of the inhabitants. Other states have been slower to take such measures, especially in the absence of smallpox.
Calls for a national immunization program gathered under President James Madison. Congress eventually passed, and Madison signed “a law to encourage vaccination,” known as the Vaccine Act in 1813.
While some wanted the law to force communities to require vaccinations like in Massachusetts, the vaccine law was more modest. His goal was to ensure that anyone who wanted the smallpox vaccine could get it from a reliable source at a low cost. The program was underfunded and ultimately canceled nine years later. And in the 1820s, some in Congress began to label the program as an unconstitutional intrusion on states’ rights to ensure the health of their own citizens.
The demise of the national vaccine agency left immunization efforts to the states. And while their leaders did not undermine the concept of immunization itself, nor the health officials within their states who promoted it, epidemic control efforts in the late 19th century were often haphazard cases that failed to protect the truly vulnerable like the newly liberated black Americans. or recent immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, more and more state and local governments made vaccination of schoolchildren mandatory, business owners often demanded that their workers be vaccinated, and the United States had no other smallpox epidemic after the 1940s. These sometimes aggressive actions sparked a vocal but largely disorganized anti-vaccination movement, which challenged the state’s health laws in court, but was not at the center of any big political party.
Even though providing health care to all Americans has become a partisan ideal in the 20th century, immunization programs have long been an obvious and apolitical duty of government. While such programs have not always been popular with everyone in the history of the United States, non-partisan vaccination promotion is almost as old as the country itself. That the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic is breaking this long American tradition is another troubling sign for the future of the United States and its people.