The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can repeat Boston’s 1776 freedom summer

While fighting the war for independence, Bostonians sought freedom from another menace: smallpox

First lady Jill Biden, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, with blue mask, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff tour a vaccination site in Phoenix. (Carolyn Kaster/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden recently announced his intention of marking this July Fourth as the start of a “summer of freedom,” thanks to the amazing success of the coronavirus vaccines.

This joining of Independence Day with “independence from the virus” echoes the dual freedom the people of Boston felt in the summer of 1776. Smallpox, a deadly viral disease known as the “king of terrors,” broke out again across New England in 1773 and exploded during the Revolutionary War. And so, as Americans were fighting the British and drafting the Declaration of Independence, they also recognized that political independence did not mean much without security from disease — and that meant seizing the opportunity to be immunized when it arrived.

The best way to acquire immunity to smallpox was through inoculation or variolation, which had been known in Africa, Asia and the Middle East for generations before Europeans learned of it in the early 18th century. A precursor to vaccination, inoculation was the direct insertion of pus taken from a smallpox victim into a slight incision on the arm of a healthy person. The process in the 18th century could be harrowing, with considerable risk. Between 1 and 2 percent of patients died of inoculation, but that was far better than the 10 to 25 percent fatality rate for those who contracted the disease naturally. The typical patient received a mild case of smallpox and lifelong immunity.

Inoculation was also costly and difficult to administer. Because patients could spread natural smallpox to others, they had to be isolated for at least three weeks. Even if an average worker could afford inoculation, they often could not afford the missed time from work.

And so, during a 1764 outbreak, Boston took an innovative approach: shutting down the entire city for a “general inoculation.” With most businesses temporarily closed for several months, average families had time to inoculate. The city reimbursed doctors so that poor patients could be immunized free of charge and provided food and supplies. John Adams delayed his wedding to Abigail Smith so that he could join the Bostonians and be inoculated against the dreaded disease.

A decade later, when John Adams left to join the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Abigail Adams read the newspapers for details about the war and new smallpox cases. Anxious to have herself and their children inoculated, Abigail wrote to John in April 1776 that she almost “cannot help wishing it would spread,” so that a general inoculation would be declared. She promised her husband that if the opportunity came to inoculate, she would happily run the family into debt if necessary to obtain immunity.

As Abigail Adams waited, she learned of the Continental Army’s failed invasion of Canada. Smallpox had broken out among the soldiers, dooming the campaign. Returning soldiers threatened to bring the disease back with them. Exasperated, John wrote to Abigail: “The Small Pox! The Small Pox! What shall we do with it?” He answered his own question by remarking, “I could almost wish that an inoculating Hospital was opened, in every Town in New England.”

While John Adams and 55 other men in Philadelphia debated the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, on July 3, 1776, the people of Boston declared their independence from smallpox. Fearing further outbreaks, the Massachusetts legislature voted to once again shut down the entire city for a general inoculation.

The people of Boston cheered the news. Ezekiel Price, a local businessman and court official, declared on July 4: “Liberty given for to inoculate for the small-pox; many begin upon it this afternoon.”

Abigail Adams took her four children to her uncle’s house to inoculate with the families of her two sisters. Guardhouses were built to warn anyone entering the city of the presence of smallpox and to prevent anyone from leaving the city during the general inoculation without a certificate from a doctor.

On July 18, 1776, Col. Thomas Crafts read the Declaration of Independence for the first time to the people of Boston from the balcony of the State House. Abigail Adams joined the “multitude into King Street to hear the proclamation.” The assembled crowd was composed of recently inoculated Bostonians and those with previous immunity who had stayed behind to take care of the rest. The joyful crowd cheered: “God save our American states!”

The same day, a letter in the New England Chronicle signed “A.B.” praised inoculation by writing, “At this critical season, we cannot be too speedy or diligent in everywhere applying this inestimable gift of Heaven.” A.B. claimed that by providing inoculation to the public, the government “cannot in any way more essentially serve this Colony, and the common cause of America,” and implored “all friends to their country to contribute their aid to a service of so much importance.”

Boston’s “freedom summer” ended on Sept. 18, 1776, when the city ordered the guardhouses closed and the city to reopen for business. Although statistics were not immediately published, 20 years later, Thomas Pemberton, a businessman and member of the newly founded Massachusetts Historical Society, compiled the numbers. In the summer of 1776, Boston saw 29 deaths from 304 cases of natural smallpox. By contrast, only 28 deaths were reported with 4,988 Bostonians inoculated. Ninety percent of Boston’s nonimmune population was inoculated, saving hundreds of lives.

The United States probably won’t reach Biden’s goal of 70 percent of adults vaccinated by this July Fourth, though many states have. Today’s vaccines are far safer than the inoculations the founding generation of Americans risked their lives to receive. There is little that we can do in the summer of 2021 to better embody the spirit of ‘76 than to get vaccinated and urge others to do the same as a means to gain our independence from covid-19.