The founders knew that individual freedom does not trump the common good

PresidentJoe Biden made vaccines mandatory for much of the American workforce, a requirement that hasprotest by opponents of the measure.

Meanwhile, a similar initiative in New York to mandate vaccinations has resulted in more a dozen companies fined for breaking the rules.

The basic idea behind the objections: Such warrants, which also extend to mask-wearing and quarantine requirements for exposure to COVID-19, constitute a violation of the Constitution 14th amendment, which states that “no state shall make or enforce a law which would limit the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Opponents ask: Aren’t the mandates anti-American?

As an academic who has spent decades trying to overcome the obstacles that mark the beginning of this nation, I offer some facts in answer to this question – some very American facts: Vaccination mandates have existed in the past, even if they have the same sparked popular rage.

No enemy of vaccination, no fan of the last days of the Gadsden flag “DON’T STEP ON ME“, would forever gain the posthumous approval of the American founders.

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest of the group cultivated different visions of America. But they did agree on one principle: they were adamant that circumstances often arise which force public officials to adopt acts that restrict individual freedoms.

Strong sense of civic duty

Most of the founders, to begin with, were slave owners, not particularly concerned with trampling and shorten the rights of the people they held in bondage. But even when dealing with those they saw as their peers, American citizens, their attitude was rather bossy – at least by today’s standards.

In 1777, during the American Revolution, Washington had its officers and troops vaccinated against smallpox. The procedure was risk. But for Washington, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. It was an order, a real mandate, not an option that individuals could discuss and possibly decide.

“After every attempt to stop the spread of smallpox,” Washington told the New York Convention, “I found it was gaining such a head among the Southern troops that there was no way to save the lives of most of those who hadn’t had it, but by introducing the inoculation in general. “

This image shows an 1876 engraving titled "Declaration of independence of July 4, 1776" made available by the Library of Congress.  On this day, the Continental Congress officially approved the Declaration of Independence.  (J. Trumbull, WL Ormsby via AP)

During the summer of 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever hit philadelphia, then the American capital. He shattered the city’s health and political infrastructure. Food supplies have declined; business stopped. The government – federal, state and municipal – has been suspended. In just three months, 5,000 of the nearly 55,000 residents died from the infection.

Public hysteria has taken off. The Philadelphians first pinned the epidemic on the arrival of refugees from the French colony of Santo Domingo who were fleeing the island of this island. slave revolution.

But there was also heroism. black clergymen Richard allen and Absalom jones, for example, tirelessly transported the sick, administered medicines and buried the dead.

Prompted by Governor Thomas Mifflin, the Pennsylvania state legislature imposed sweeping quarantines. And almost everyone complied.

Henry Knox, then US Secretary of War, does not oppose it. Knox had fought during the Revolution. He had risked his life in many battles. He had developed a keen sense of what “civic duty” means: “I still have six days of quarantine to complete,” he wrote to President Washington, “which among the choice of evils is the least. “


The epidemic did not abate as quickly as expected. In September 1794 yellow fever lingered in Baltimore, where it had spread from Philadelphia. In 1795 he reached New York.

A certain John Coverdale, of Henderskelfe, Yorkshire, England, wrote a long letter to President Washington. He called for more drastic measures, including three weeks of quarantine and strategically placed police in all corners to prevent people from moving from area to area; and he wanted people to “carry with them certificates either from their origin from uninfected places, or from their crossing of the line with authorization. “

In other words, quarantine, confinement and vaccine passports.

No politician we know of at the time considered such anti-American measures. In May 1796, Congress passed and President Washington signed the first federal law on quarantine. There hasn’t been a lot of controversy. In 1799, Congress passed a second and more restrictive quarantine law. President Adams signed it without flinching.

“Ambition” against the public good

So apparently it’s not the certificates, quarantines, and vaccination warrants that aren’t American, as some argue today.

The argument that individual rights trump the common good is not American, or at least out of step with American tradition. This is an attitude that the founders would have put under the all-encompassing banner of “ambition. “

“Ambition” arises when individuals are blinded by their small or large selfishness and self-interest. They lose track of higher goals: the community, the republic, the nation. In the most serious cases, ambition becomes antisocial.

Ambitious individuals, the founders were sure, are people who have lost their belonging to a community. They choose to relegate themselves to their lonely imagination. They have become slaves to their own opinions.

Alexandre hamilton was weary of being the target of endless accusations: “It will never be said, with any color of truth, that my ambition or my interest has stood in the way of the public good.

Faced with a quarantine, term, or similar momentary curtailments of their freedoms, many Americans today react in the same manner as Hamilton. Like Hamilton, they look beyond themselves, their opinions, their interests. They do not lose sight of the public good.

Others remain ambitious.

Maurizio Valsania is a professor of American history at University of Turin. This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license.