Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jim Jordan says vaccine mandates are un-American. George Washington thought otherwise.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) speaks during a news conference in July. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

At a time when the delta variant’s summer surge has renewed the nation’s divisions over coronavirus vaccines, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Monday said mandates enforcing vaccination do not reflect what it means to be American.

“Vaccine mandates are un-American,” Jordan tweeted.

But critics panned Jordan’s Labor Day message as being off — way off — by nearly 2½ centuries. George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, made the bold decision in 1777 to require that his troops be immunized after a smallpox outbreak devastated the nation.

The act would be repeated by presidents and military leaders throughout U.S. history — including last month by the Defense Department — and a 1905 decision by the Supreme Court upheld mandatory vaccinations as American.

“Congressman Jordan is just wrong. There’s more than enough history to show we have a precedent for requiring vaccines that goes all the way to George Washington,” Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, told The Washington Post. “This claim that it’s somehow un-American doesn’t match with the actual historical record. I don’t think there’s much of an argument here.”

A spokesman with Jordan’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Jordan’s dismissal of vaccine mandates as un-American comes as the summer surge in coronavirus cases, driven largely by the highly transmissible delta variant, has generated a sharp rise in public fears and intensified the ongoing partisan debate surrounding vaccinations and mask-wearing.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that although the increasing number of employer mandates may boost vaccinations, the potential for blowback remains high. About 7 in 10 unvaccinated workers who are not self-employed say they would probably quit if their employer required them to be vaccinated and did not grant medical or religious exemptions.

Fewer than 2 in 10 American workers say their employers require those who come to work in person to be vaccinated. Among workers whose employers have not imposed a requirement, about 3 in 10 are unvaccinated. Although roughly 8 in 10 Democrats support vaccine mandates for workers, more than 6 in 10 Republicans remain opposed, polling data shows.

As coronavirus fears spike, Biden’s ratings sag and workers split on vaccine mandates, Post-ABC poll finds

Jordan’s home state of Ohio is recording a seven-day average of 6,022 new daily coronavirus cases, according to data compiled by The Post. Nearly 3,300 people in the state are hospitalized with covid-19, as hospitalizations have increased by 16 percent since last week. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, said in a news briefing last week that roughly 98 percent of those hospitalized with covid were unvaccinated, describing the situation in the state as a “hospital pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Even though less than 49 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has reiterated that Ohio will not have a vaccine mandate. Speaking at a news conference in August, DeWine said vaccination is “an individual decision that people will have to make, and government should not be involved in mandating it.”

Yet there is a long history of mandatory immunizations supported by American leaders. Benjamin Franklin supported inoculation against smallpox constantly in his Philadelphia newspaper. In his autobiography published posthumously, Franklin said he had “long regretted bitterly, and still regret” that he had chosen to wait to inoculate his 4-year-old son, Franky, who died of smallpox. John Adams and Martha Washington were also immunized against smallpox.

Ben Franklin’s bitter regret that he didn’t immunize his 4-year-old son against smallpox

After seeing how the disease had ravaged American forces, George Washington instructed an army doctor in Philadelphia to begin administering “inoculation” — a controversial method of immunization in the 1700s in which patients developed mild cases of smallpox before becoming immune — to the soldiers.

“I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated,” Washington wrote in February 1777. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

Mandatory immunization for the military: As American as George Washington

The smallpox epidemic killed more than 100,000 people between 1775 and 1782. While the measure was not popular among soldiers, there is no evidence of mass refusal against immunization, according to the Library of Congress. The much safer vaccination method using cowpox — the word vaccine derives from the Latin word for “cow” — would not be developed until 1796.

The issue of mandatory vaccinations in the United States made its way to the Supreme Court in the early 1900s, when a smallpox vaccination law in Cambridge, Mass., was challenged by a man who refused to comply. Massachusetts had led the nation in passing vaccine law, but Henning Jacobson, a pastor, said his refusal to be vaccinated against smallpox was a personal decision.

In a February 1905 decision, the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that public health could supersede individual rights. “[T]he liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from restraint,” Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote for the majority. “There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”

Smallpox ‘virus squads’ and the mandatory vaccinations upheld by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court recently declined to take up a case challenging a vaccine mandate at Indiana University. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who received the request because she is the Supreme Court justice tasked with reviewing emergency petitions from that region of the country, did not give a reason for the high court’s declining to block the mandate.

But the “partisan resistance to public health” that Jordan and many Republican leaders are raising amid the latest surge in cases is something the nation has not previously encountered to this degree, Zelizer said.

“What we haven’t had is almost a party position that just flies in the face of public health experts who are not only saying this about the importance of the vaccine but also demonstrating it in the data,” he told The Post. “And these are big platforms [on which] Jordan and Republicans are expressing these views. That’s quite a combination, and it’s why it’s been such a difficult challenge.”

In response to Jordan’s tweet, critics and liberals on social media noted George Washington’s efforts, and the first president’s name trended on Twitter well into Tuesday. Some, like MSNBC producer Kyle Griffin, said Jordan “either doesn’t know his American history or is lying to score political points.”

“There is nothing anti-American about a vaccine mandate,” tweeted Robert Reich, former secretary of the Labor Department during Bill Clinton’s administration.

As The Post’s Philip Bump wrote in his analysis, Jordan’s “broadly espousing the idea that mandated vaccinations are incompatible with the idea that America is predicated on individual freedom” gets a little gauzy when the country’s history of vaccinations is explored.

Zelizer said that although Jordan’s tweet might suggest individual liberty to be the only tradition in the United States, the public good, the foundation of public health policy, remains “just as strong of a tradition in this country and has been recognized in the courts again and again.”

“We need to make sure that tradition is important,” he said. “Certainly, there’s a scenario where this resistance is stronger than what it should be for what is a rational decision. But that thirst for normality could at least make a dent in the Republican argument that Jordan and others are still holding onto.”

Gillian Brockell contributed to this report.

Read more:

Analysis: The debate isn’t only over vaccination. It’s also over what it means to be American.

‘A fearsome decision’: Abigail Adams had her children inoculated against smallpox

Supreme Court won’t block Indiana University vaccine mandate as Justice Barrett rejects student plea