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Dec. 19, 2022

Smallpox Inoculation & the American Revolution

In 1775, a smallpox outbreak struck the Continental Northern Army. With many of the soldiers too sick to fight, their attempted capture of Quebec on December 31, 1775, was a devastating failure, the first major defeat of the Revolutionary War for the Americans, and cost General Richard Montgomery his life. Eventually, George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, realized that the only way to avoid repeated outbreaks was to order mass inoculation of the amy, a controversial and risky decision that proved successful. 

Joining me to help us learn more about smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution is Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman, Associate professor of history at Central Michigan University, and author of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is: “The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775,” a painting by John Trumbull from 1786; photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery; public domain.

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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing smallpox inoculations and their role in the American Revolution. The smallpox virus, variola, has been around for 1000s of years. Before its eradication, smallpox caused extremely serious and often deadly infections. People infected with smallpox would experience flu like symptoms, such as fever, muscle aches, headache, and fatigue, followed by the development of flat red spots all over the body, including sometimes inside the mouth. The most common strain of smallpox, variola major, had a fatality rate of 30%. Those who survived might be permanently scarred from the pox. Before vaccination existed, people relied on inoculation, or variolation to prevent serious disease. Possibly as early as 200 BCE, people were transferring material from smallpox sores into healthy patients to produce a hopefully milder form of the disease that would provide immunity for more serious illness. In 1716, Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather learned about variolation from one of his slaves, a man Mather had named Onesimus. It is likely that Onesimus had been inoculated before he was enslaved and brought to the colonies. Variolation had been practiced in both Sub Saharan Africa and in slave communities. Mather followed the advice of Onesimus and when a smallpox outbreak hit Massachusetts in 1721, he suggested to Boston doctor Zabdiel Boylston that he inoculate the residents of the city. On June 26 of that year, Boylston inoculated his own son and two of his slaves. Following that, he inoculated around 200 additional Bostonians, to the opposition of many in the city. When he was arrested, Boylston promised he would only inoculate in the future with government permission. Smallpox continued to infect the colonies throughout the 18th century, periodically resulting in outbreaks, and inoculation remained controversial, especially because of the possibility that inoculations could lead to outbreaks. With some locales banning inoculations, people with means sometimes traveled elsewhere to find clinics where they could be inoculated. Future President John Adams traveled with his brother for the purpose of being inoculated. He wrote to his fiancee, Abigail Smith, "Dr. Perkins demanded my left arm and Dr. Warren, my brother's. They took their launcetts, and with their points divided the skin for about a quarter of an inch, and just suffering the blood to appear, buried a thread, about half a quarter of an inch long in the channel. A little lint was then laid over the scratch, and a piece of a rag pressed on, and then a bandage bound overall. The doctors have left us pills, red and black, to take night and morning. But they looked very sagaciously and importantly at us, and ordered my brother, larger doses than me, on account of the difference in our constitutions. I have one request to make, which is that you would be very careful in making Tom smoke all of the letters from me very faithfully before you or any of the family reads them. For although I shall never fail to smoke them myself before sealing. Yet I fear the air of this house will be too much infected soon to be absolutely without danger, and I would not you should take the distemper by letter from me for millions. I write at a desk far removed from any sick room, and shall use all the care I can, but too much cannot be used." Abigail's parents did not permit her to go, and it wasn't until 1776 that she and her children were inoculated. In 1775, a smallpox outbreak again hit Boston and threatened to infect the Continental Army camped out across the Charles River from the city. Washington avoided catastrophe by keeping the residents of Boston and the soldiers separated, and ensuring that only those soldiers who had previously had smallpox went into the city; but it was an early warning of what might befall the troops. That outcome was realized later in 1775, when continental soldiers marching toward Quebec, to engage the British were overcome by smallpox. The soldiers who stayed healthy, threatened to leave the army when their terms were up, fearing that they too would become sick. The depleted forces failed in their attack on Quebec, and British forces killed General Richard Montgomery. Despite the threat of smallpox, and the growing fear among soldiers that they would become ill, Washington remained resistant to mass inoculation. Done poorly, without careful attention to quarantine, mass inoculation could have created mass outbreak, so there was reason to be cautious. Finally, though, Washington was convinced that mass inoculation was the only prudent choice, writing, "This expedient may be attended with some inconveniences, and some disadvantages. But yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects. 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." The risky and controversial order proved successful not just in protecting the Continental Army, but also encouraging more recruits to join the army. 20 years later, in 1796, a British physician named Edward Jenner started down the long road toward complete eradication of smallpox. Recognizing that dairy maids who had been affected by cow pox seem to be immune from smallpox, he started to experiment with inoculation, using cow pox matter, instead of smallpox matter, which made the inoculated person much less ill while still conferring immunity to smallpox. Jenner certainly wasn't the first person to do such an experiment. But he was influential in championing the procedure in the scientific community, publishing a 1798 booklet, entitled, "An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered  in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of Cow Pox." Eventually, vaccination from vaccinia, the Latin for cow pox, came to replace inoculation everywhere, as vaccination became more widespread. The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States was in 1949.

In 1959, the World Health Organization launched its Smallpox Eradication Program, and it doubled down on its efforts in 1967, with the Soviet Union providing freeze-dried vaccine. Finally, after intensive effort by international workers, in 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated, stating, "The world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was the most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest times, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake." Joining me now, to help us learn more about smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution, is Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman, Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University, and author of "The Contagion of Liberty: the Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution." Hi, Andrew, welcome. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  11:02  
Hi, Kelly. It's nice to be here.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:04  
Yes. So this is just a terrific book, and a I hate to say "fun" project because illness and death, not so fun. But nonetheless, the story is sort of really intriguing, so fun in in a certain sense. So I am glad you're able to join me and talk about it today.

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  11:21  
Well, I wanted it not to be all death and things. It's a little bit positive. It's about defeating disease in the end, moreso than it is succumbing to it. So hopefully, there's a little bit of positivity in there.

Kelly Therese Pollock  11:35  
Yeah, yeah, I think so. So I'd love to start by just hearing how you first got interested in this topic.

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  11:43  
So I went to graduate school at Northwestern. And it took me a while to figure out what I was doing there, both in terms of just being in class, but also a dissertation project. And I was really interested in the American Revolution. So it started there. It started with wanting to understand ordinary people during the American Revolution, and especially how ordinary people navigated within their communities to make decisions about the revolution, because in so many communities, like in New England, a whole town decided to join the revolution or to take up arms. And I was wondering, "Okay, well, how did that happen? Did people say 'no,' were they convinced?" You know, the town meetings records are often unanimous. There's a unanimous vote. You think, "Well, it can't just be everybody all on board for this." And so I started looking at different communities. I wrote a couple of research papers. I wrote one on Boston and one on Worcester. And they were okay, you know. They got decent enough grades for me to stay in the program, but they weren't real dissertation level interventions. And so I kept looking at different places, and I came across a town called Marblehead, Massachusetts, which I had never heard of, even though it was the second largest city in Massachusetts at the time of the revolution. And there was a diary written by an ordinary sailor, an ordinary person named Ashley Bowen, and getting the inner thoughts getting the ideas of ordinary people in the revolution, as you know, in your Unsung History podcast, where we talk about ordinary people a lot, finding those is hard, and getting a sustained look at events through the eyes of someone who isn't wealthy or famous. So this is an ordinary sailor, and he kept daily diary entries since 17, from 1766, through about 1800. And, and I greedily looked through his diary was published, and trying to find, you know, "What does this sailor think of the Stamp Act? Or what does he think about tea and or the Boston Tea Party? What, is he angry about taxes?" And he doesn't write about any of that stuff, none of that concerns him. But what he writes about a lot is smallpox. And as I kept reading it, you know, he's becomes angrier and angrier. People in his town are getting sick, starting in 1773. They're dying. His wife gets sick. His son gets sick. People in his community are suffering and that's what he's writing about on a daily basis. He writes a poem about the epidemic as it happens. He does little paintings in his diary of the hospital, of things in the community that are there, and it's only really after the war breaks out, certainly after this epidemic is surging, that Ashley Bowen ever says anything about a conflict between the colonies and Great Britain. So I started thinking, "Okay, maybe there's something here." I knew there was a smallpox epidemic during the revolution, but I hadn't realized how much it affected people, their communities. And when I started looking at other communities, the same kinds of things kept popping up. And I said, "Okay, well, here's a, here's a story that hasn't been told. Here's a new dimension to what ordinary people wanted out of their revolution."

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:22  
Yeah, yeah. It's fascinating. So let's talk a little bit about inoculation itself, and what what that actually looks like at the time. So you know, we all, probably everyone listening has had many vaccines in their life and you like, show up at the drugstore and roll up your sleeve and get a little needle and maybe you feel icky for a day and that's it, like life goes on. That is not what we're talking about here. So what is this smallpox inoculation at the time of the revolution? What does it look like? And it's sort of how do people experience it?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  15:54  
Okay, well, first of all, smallpox itself, the thing that you're inoculating against was the most terrible disease ever, in in human history. It might as well be called "human pox," because it only affects humans. It doesn't have an animal reservoir. That's why, since no human on the planet currently has it, we can know that it's eradicated, that it's not going to affect us, we can talk about it in the past tense that way. And smallpox, like a few other diseases, if you get it once, and you survive it, you have lifelong immunity to it. And so, in, in regions of the world where smallpox became endemic or ever present, people realized that getting smallpox early, or taking the infection, as they might call it, when you're relatively young, relatively healthy during a good time of year when food's available and that sort of thing, gave you a better chance at survival. So people started to give themselves smallpox on purpose. And this happened in that there's debates over where it happened first, but it happened in India, it happens in in China, the Middle East, Africa, well before Europeans were aware of it. They were late to this game. And in different places, it took some different forms. But the most common form that eventually does spread to Europe, is that an inoculator would make a slight incision on your arm usually, a little scratch, and then into that scratch they would rub a bit of smallpox matters is where it gets a bit gross, the the pus from a small pox victim. From from the pustule, a little bit of white stuff gets smeared in or dropped into that incision that gets bandaged up. And within a week or so, the person who got inoculated starts showing some mild symptoms of smallpox, they get a mild version of disease, much more survivable than natural smallpox, a few pox will start appearing, but they'll get through it, it takes about three to four weeks, it's not just a day at the drugstore, and a day of Netflix at home. It's a three to four week process. But afterward, when you survive, and most people did, it gives you that, that immunity to smallpox for the rest of your life. Now there's one big catch with inoculation that also makes it different from the vaccinations that we're familiar with. And that is after you're inoculated, when you start experiencing those smallpox symptoms, you are infectious with natural smallpox, which means you can spread it to others, you can spread it to your family, you can't just get grandma inoculated in your house, because she'll spread it to everybody else. The whole family needs to get inoculated at once. Your neighbors might get mad at you if you do this, because you could potentially start an epidemic of real natural smallpox in your community just by inoculating. And so for that reason, in my period in 18th century, when people got inoculated they usually did in an isolated test house or inoculation hospital, usually somewhere way out in the pasture, in the woods, or out on an isolated island, so that they wouldn't spread it to the community. They'd spend three to four weeks there, and then return back to the community safe from smallpox.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:49  
You mentioned the town meetings earlier and of course that's a really important piece of this story is the town meetings about inoculation and whether they're going to support general inoculation, and if they're gonna create a hospital and who they're gonna hire and all of those things, and it's so striking that in most of the places you look in, the meetings you look at, the debates are not over, does this work or not? I think that's what we think we, you know, at least what I think when I think of the 18th century is like, "Oh, they just didn't know very much science, you know, they would have thought, 'Oh, this is superstitious, it doesn't work,' whatever." But that's not it. They're they're sort of all accepting that, yes, this works. And it's just a question of how do you do it? Should you do it? When do you do it to get it right? Could you talk about that piece of it?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  20:38  
Yeah. And that was a bit surprising to me as I researched it, because you'll sometimes hear people say the anti- vaccination has been around as long as vaccination, or people were against inoculation since it since its discovery, and it's not really true. Initially, there's a huge controversy in Boston in 1721. When the smallpox inoculation is first experimented with, first discovered, people do question, you know, "Is this playing God? Doesn't God decide who gets sick and who's well, and if we give someone that disease on purpose, we're doing God's work?" So they questioned it  that way. And then there's others, of course, who are also saying, "Is it really effective? This sounds bad. Should we, do we need more evidence? Does it need a more of a sort of scientific trial," as much as they might explain it that way. But the evidence is so overwhelming over the decades, people, you know, this is like, the cure for cancer gets discovered. It may be it's controversial at first and it's, it goes against your thinking to get smallpox on purpose sounds really crazy. But the proof is in the statistics, it's in the evidence. You get, they they publish the statistics in the newspapers, they talk about them in these town meetings, and they say, you know, "If you have natural smallpox, there's a 20% chance that you will die. If you're inoculated, and you're healthy, there's, you know, less than a 1% chance that you'll die." And smallpox was so terrible and so feared that people really were excited about inoculation, they rush to get it, they wanted it. And the big hang up was that it was expensive. Most ordinary people can't take off  from work for three to four weeks. So that became the discussion in those town meetings. "Okay, we all recognize that this is a massive improvement in science and technology and human health. But how do we get it to the masses? How do we provide it to people or should only the wealthy who can afford a a month long vacation have access to it?" Well, for most people in these town meetings, that's not acceptable. We can't just allow rich people and their kids to have it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:06  
Yeah, it's seems like it should not be surprising to me that health and money go together, even back then in this country. But but it was striking the the extent to which the story is really about money. It's about the cost of inoculations. It's about doctors wanting to make money versus doctors who are sort of altruistic about how they approach it. It's about what the wealthy get versus what does everybody else get? And it's about business. It's a you know, in we heard all of these arguments about the stoppage of business more recently when we had COVID shutdowns. But this idea that, well, if we do a general inoculation, then the whole town shuts down. And we can't have that we can't just like stop all trade for a month or whatever. Were you expecting to see that much about money and economy in this story?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  23:57  
I guess I was. Just to be clear, you know, I did this this research, I began the dissertation project more than a decade ago. So it was long before COVID. And then, when the COVID epidemic hit, it just sort of felt like, you know how it feels if you're watching a TV show, and you're on the sixth season, and everybody else is on Season One, you're, you're already there. So it was like, "Yeah, I know, people are gonna argue about money and shutdowns and stuff like that." But, you know, it wasn't in a sense that surprising because it's similar to some of the arguments during the revolution too about taxation and payments and who should be doing what and how responsive government should be in an epidemic, and who is ultimately responsible as an individual service of the community or is it the government? So it's kind of similar arguments happening in the smallpox debates, but sometimes even louder and affecting more people because you know, ultimately who's in control politically, there are a lot of members of the community that you know, want to stay out of those conversations or just prefer to be neutral. But when it's about disease, and it's going to affect your kids and your families, you're going to attend those meetings, you're going to read those newspapers, you're going to be angry about it happening. But you're right, that lots of the conversation was about money. Doctors realized as an epidemic looms, that they've got something in inoculation that is high in demand, and they can charge high amounts for it. You see doctors, you know, constructing lavish hospitals to try to recruit the wealthiest families there. And that, of course, makes the poor, very, very angry is that those hospitals if there's a breach in quarantine, can can sicken everyone else. So there's profits to be had. But then there's, you know, ordinary people that say, "Look, I'm, I'm a postman, and my job is to travel from from town to town. And if there's smallpox breaking out, I'm really at risk. And not only am I at risk of getting it, I can bring it back to our town, get our people sick. So inoculating the whole community, it is an economic burden, in some sense. It's going to cost our town its business, the market is going to have to shut down for a while, things are going to have to close while we get everyone through the epidemic and through the process of inoculation." But they're saying the cost is so much better if we all survive it than if we don't. It's going to shut down our communities one way or another. And we might as well all get through it together.

Kelly Therese Pollock  26:45  
So you talk a lot, of course, about George Washington, and I was so interested to read the the way that he has been portrayed, as you know, sort of being like, Yay, the first vaccinator versus what actually happened, and he was eventually a huge champion, but that's not how it started. So can you talk a little bit about that, and his shift and the importance of the shift in his thinking to how the troops are ultimately protected?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  27:13  
That's been interesting during COVID as well, because I think more and more Americans have know that George Washington inoculated the Continental Army, that he ordered that inoculation. And when I started my my research, people didn't all know that, it wasn't so common. I could surprise people with that. But what's still generally misunderstood is that George Washington was acting out of some enlightened rationale where he understood smallpox and inoculation more than anyone else, and he convinced the soldiers to get to get inoculated. And that isn't the way it happened. It's the soldiers who are demanding it, who are putting pressure on their officers, ultimately on on Washington and saying, "We don't want to want to fight." They're they're getting trouble getting recruits into the army because they hear there's smallpox in the army. They're all demanding it and saying, "If we're protected from disease, we're going to be a stronger fighting force. We won't have to worry about our bringing smallpox back home from from the army." So the demand is really bottom up for inoculation, generally. Washington has tough conversations with his officers. At first, Washington is very against inoculating in, in the army. He's, he fears that it will spread the disease among the soldiers to do it. Washington understands the damage of smallpox, he got smallpox as a as a teenager and survived it. Most of his soldiers are teenagers. So he's hopeful that that if they do get it that they'll survive it like he did. He tries to keep it out using quarantine and things. But but he worries about a large scale inoculation. Washington was from Virginia. Virginia doesn't have as much experience with large scale general inoculations as New England does. Many of these soldiers especially in the first couple of years of the war are from New England, so they are much more adamant that this can work, can be done on a large scale. Washington's medical directors are advocating for inoculation, publishing pamphlets saying that this is a duty that we have to inoculate and eventually Washington becomes convinced. It takes a while. As you read in my book, Washington waivers on it, literally writes a memo to his officers saying, "We cannot inoculate the troops. I just don't see how it can be done safely." Then the next day he sleeps on it. The next day he crosses out those sentences and he writes, "We must inoculate, we have to do it. I've become convinced." And after, after changing his mind, and I think Washington deserves the most credit for changing his mind, oh, my God, if we had politicians who were willing to change their minds. That's where Washington deserves it right? Washington changes his mind and, and becomes just the biggest supporter of inoculation. He sees how successful it is. Troops go through it. Very few soldiers die from inoculation. It is very successful, they move through it quickly. Washington, after seeing how successful it is, and among the troops, orders the inoculation of his home at Mount Vernon. His enslaved people are all inoculated. He writes letters saying that he wishes that every every child in Virginia should be inoculated, taking it way further than than most at the time. I should also say that a part of the credit for getting Washington to change his mind belongs with Martha Washington, who, at the time that George Washington is saying, you know, saying that to anyone who inoculates should be kicked out of the army, should be punished as a trader, this is in the summer of 1776, Martha Washington goes to Philadelphia and gets inoculated on her own without the direct permission from her husband, George. George Washington says I don't think she has the resolution to do it. And she does it. And Martha Washington survives it too. It's easy and successful for her. And I think that's part of the process where Washington starts softening to the idea.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:50  
Yeah. And you mentioned that he then did inoculate the enslaved population at Mount Vernon. But that was unusual. That seems like it was not something that typically happened in the South. Can you talk about that, because that seems like a particularly horrific piece of all of this, that while a plantation owner maybe would get themselves and their family inoculated, they would not do the same for the enslaved population who could neither leave nor be protected from disease?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  32:20  
Yeah, so you would think that because enslaved people were of such economic value to a plantation owner, that they would have slaves inoculated. But that's not what most did, Washington did. But most did not. It was expensive to inoculate people. And if you are going to inoculate your slaves, that means that those enslaved people cannot do any work for you for a month. It also means because inoculation wasn't symptom free, and people who are inoculated were susceptible, about 1% died, it probably meant if you were a large slave holder with 100, or 200, slaves like George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson, that you're probably going to lose one of those slaves if you're doing this kind of calculation. So most of the of the slave owners in Virginia, opted not to, even when they went when the law allowed them to inoculate, they would try to inoculate their white family members, maybe their closest household slaves, but most of the enslaved population of Virginia and and the South was not inoculated, even during these conversations. They all knew it would benefit them, but that cost calculation left them susceptible and vulnerable. And you're right, so when the war comes to the south, when armies start marching and enslaved people are promised freedom if they joined the British line, so they're fleeing plantations, joining the British, and there's so many, so much movement of, of humans, that smallpox and other diseases too, but smallpox starts spreading among them and just takes devastating toll especially on the enslaved people of the South and in Virginia. Ultimately, these Virginia plantation owners, Thomas Jefferson, blame the British for spreading smallpox, instead of blaming themselves for not having inoculated their enslaved people.

Kelly Therese Pollock  34:36  
 Another thing that I'd like to talk through a little bit is the whole idea of where disease comes from. So this is before germ theory is around and you know, they've got the scientific proof that inoculation works, but there isn't consensus necessarily on contagion, and where these different diseases are coming from, or what you need to do to prevent disease, including bias of some of the people who are supposed to be the most scientific, medical minded people of the day like Benjamin Rush? Can you talk a little bit about that? And how that's sort of working against some of these efforts to inoculate or eventually to vaccinate a general population?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  35:22  
Right. So there's no germ theory yet. They don't know that smallpox is caused by a virus, although some get pretty close. Even Cotton Mather back in the 1720s suspects that the cause is an animalcule, some kind of tiny animal. He's pretty close with it with with a virus, but others aren't, aren't so convinced. They don't really know what's causing it or really how it spreads. With smallpox, it's fairly obvious and fairly easy to track because the symptoms, those pox are so clear that, you know, if you are a nurse who's taking care of someone with smallpox soon breaks out with smallpox, you could make that connection that it was being in close contact with someone with the disease. That's the cause. So if you talk to average people, women who take care of sick people, they know what the cause is. It's close contact with with with the infected. Now they don't know that it's caused by exhalations from the person who's sick out the nose in the mouth, that the air that they're breathing out of a water vapor that comes when we, when we breathe, and then breathe it back in. They don't know how the mechanism for for the spread exactly. So many people in the 18th century suspect that smallpox needs a surface to to spread. We went through that with COVID, right? But they thought, okay, so smallpox must spread on clothing, it must spread on blankets, there's one doctor who's convinced that smallpox spreads on the wigs that they that they wore, and others think you know that that's ridiculous. It's just caused by by being near someone. So there are confusions about the actual spread, and the mechanism of it. With smallpox, it's that people are pretty well convinced that it's contagious, that it's a contagious disease. But as the decades go on, that actually becomes fuzzier, which is, I think, a little bit surprising, because I think historians or people who think about origins of disease, think it's always a straight line from misunderstanding to understanding. And in this case, you get the sense during the revolution, or I hope you do, that people had smallpox pretty well figured out how to how to contain it, how to defeat it, how to use inoculation for it. Soon after the revolution, there are epidemics of a new disease called yellow fever, and yellow fever doesn't act like smallpox. It really breaks people's brains when they try to understand how, how this disease works. Yellow fever seems really random. People are getting sick and they haven't been near other sick people. It isn't caused by direct contact. It doesn't seem contagious. Maybe it's caused by atmospheric conditions. Maybe it's caused by you know, rotting coffee. That's what Benjamin Rush thought: rotting coffee in Philadelphia or stagnant pools of water, foul smells. People are coming up with all of these ideas to explain yellow fever. Some of that works backwards. And people like Rush start doubting that smallpox was was was ever a contagious disease. Maybe it was atmospheric too. And and they start thinking that maybe all disease is caused by a miasma in the air, or bad atmospheres. And public health really takes a step back here. Now yellow fever is caused by by mosquitoes, but they didn't know that and not having that that piece of information. And sometimes they come really close to figuring it out. And you're kind of cheering them on as you read, read their diaries. They're so close. They're talking about how many mosquitoes there are outside that day, but you're not making the connection that that's what's what's carrying the disease to people. And that affects then people's ideas about smallpox, about inoculation and about vaccination. Because if all disease is caused by bad atmosphere and bad smells, then we can never really escape it, especially the way they're thinking. And so getting inoculated or getting vaccinated, doesn't really do much because we have to change the whole atmosphere. So soon after the revolution, even though during the revolution people are so successful in defeating smallpox, preserving their lives, immunizing themselves against this disease, ideas about disease itself start getting scattered soon there afterward, and things break down and get more complicated.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:16  
I want to talk then about public health and the public piece of public health. That is the piece that most directly connected in my mind, what we're currently living through with COVID and trying to figure out what's best. Is, is the difference between doing something because it's good for society's health, it's good for the most health for the most people kind of thing, versus I can protect myself or I can protect my family, and the idea of individual liberty versus liberty of the country. So I wonder if you could take us through that piece in this story. And what, you know what we could maybe if we had learned this story earlier, maybe could have realized for COVID, or probably wouldn't have let's be honest, but you know, what, what you see as the primary tensions that are coming out in in that piece? 

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  41:12  
Yeah, well, the book is called "The Contagion of Liberty" for that reason, or has a couple of different meanings. But liberty is a really important concept to the book. And the the the way colonial Americans during and after the revolution think about liberty is fundamentally at odds with this refrain that we're often hearing today about individual liberty, personal liberty, that vaccination is a personal choice, that government shouldn't be doing it or mandating it. And that idea of individual freedom or individual liberty would have really puzzled Americans of the of the 18th century. Americans who fought the Revolution, I think, had a pretty good idea of what they meant by liberty when they were echoing it. Liberty usually meant the freedom to act with the consent of your community. Together, it means a kind of interdependence more than independence. So when, at these town meetings that we talked about earlier, a person might ask for liberty to build a fence that might cross his neighbor's property, right? He could do it, but he has to go ask permission to do it. A butcher who wants to open a butcher shop has to ask for permission to place it in the middle of town. You can't do it without the town's permission. Similar liberty is invoked with inoculation. If you want to get inoculated, you have to ask for liberty, your neighbors might say no, your neighbors might say, well, there's really not that much risk of smallpox right now. If you inoculate, we'll have to quarantine you and you're providing a risk to the community. So no, or maybe they'd say yes, and we're going to allow everyone to inoculate at once. It wasn't emphatically, liberty didn't mean a permission to do what, whatever you wanted, permission to do as we please, as as it was said. Now, there were some some conflicts about this. There were some specially in the South and in Virginia, that wanted to inoculate privately in their own homes, even if the community was against it. They thought it's our right to inoculate within our own homes and to be responsible individually. But notably, none of them are arguing that it's a right not to inoculate if the community is calling for it, right. Again, there was no argument that inoculation was somehow a bad thing. But in general, yeah, that's when, as the pandemic played out, I'm here in Michigan and, and the Michigan State Capitol was surrounded by anti-shutdown protesters and a little precursor to January 6. There were protests about our governor's pandemic policies, and these guys are waving flags from the revolution, a couple of Confederate flags in there too, which is a different story. But, you know, proclaiming that they're the rightful owners of liberty without kind of understanding the irony, maybe if they had my book, to see that during the revolution itself, people are demanding inoculation, they're demanding their government take action to prevent smallpox. They understand that there can be no liberty without without hell. And further, I think in the Revolutionary generation, they understood perhaps better than we do, that there aren't just individual rights that we carry, but that the government itself has duties. There are things that that we want and require any government to do for us. And the foremost of those duties is securing our safety. And so early on every community in in colonial America as soon after its founding develops laws and ordinances to protect community members against disease through quarantines, other other measures to make sure that people are reporting when they're sick, so that they don't spread it to other people. And it was not only an individual's responsibility to act wisely, during a pandemic, to not infect others, but it's also the duty of your government to protect you from disease, and they would have looked at some of our current pandemic and wonder, you know, what are we thinking not only are people sometimes acting irresponsibly, individually, but there are many instances where the government isn't doing its duty to protect its citizens.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:18  
All right, well, if listeners would like to get a copy of the book for themselves, or to give to you know, all the legislators and the anti-shutdown people they know, how can they do that?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  46:28  
Great idea. Any bookseller, online or otherwise, you can get it. You can get it from Barnes and Noble, or Amazon or My website can find links to those things., the press website, Johns Hopkins University Press' website is a great place to order it from too.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:48  
 Yeah, it's a it's a terrific book. I really enjoyed it. And I think it's always fun to see the story about this thing you think you know everything about, the American Revolution, and then it's like, "Nope, you didn't know this part of it." So it's great to get that look at it. And of course, it's got all the all the people in it that you'd expect to see John and Abigail Adams and George and Martha Washington and Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin and everybody show up. So So that's terrific.

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  47:12  
They help keep the story moving. Yeah.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:14  
Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about?

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  47:18  
I would, again, emphasize that vaccination and getting vaccinated is not just good for you individually, and not just good for helping to protect your neighbors, but that indeed, it is patriotic and it's at the root of the country that we live in is, is protecting ourselves and our neighbors from disease. So get vaccinated get the latest booster.

Kelly Therese Pollock  47:42  
Yes, absolutely. And my own personal experience was that the bivalent booster was the one I had the least reaction to, so go get it. All right, Andrew, thank you so much. This was a great conversation, and I'm just thrilled to have learned this part of the American Revolution.

Dr. Andrew M. Wehrman  47:58  
Thank you, Kelly. I really enjoyed it.

Teddy  48:02  
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Andrew WehrmanProfile Photo

Andrew Wehrman

I’m Andrew Wehrman, a historian, writer, and associate professor of history at Central Michigan University. I received my Ph.D. from Northwestern University, and M.A.T. and B.A. from the University of Arkansas. I previously taught at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. My research and teaching focuses on Colonial and Revolutionary America and the history of medicine, disease, and public health. In addition to my book, The Contagion of Liberty, I have written articles for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and NBC News among others. In my writing and in my speaking engagements, I seek to put current questions about government responses to epidemics (or lack thereof) and public vaccination efforts into a lively historical context.