Skip to content
Home » Vaccine mandate history – USA owes its existence to one

Vaccine mandate history – USA owes its existence to one

The American vaccine mandate history goes all the way back to the American Revolutionary War when General George Washington ordered smallpox vaccinations for all soldiers in 1777. I bet most people don’t know the history of the vaccine mandate, but I was amazed to read how far back it went in US history.

However, vaccine mandates history includes a lot of other events that tell us that not only have mandates been a part of the fabric of American history, it’s also constitutional. And I’m briefly going to cover it in this article.

vaccine mandate history
Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

Vaccine mandate history – George Washington

In 1777, smallpox was a huge problem for the fledgling American army in its fight against the British. In fact, General Washington worried that smallpox might defeat the American army before the British could.

At the Battle of Quebec in 1775, where American troops attempted to take Quebec and, therefore, Canada, the British general in charge of the defense of the province, Guy Carleton, released residents of the city infected with smallpox to the American lines. This started an epidemic amongst the American besiegers, devastating the American troops.

Washington was aware of this, and he knew that the fate of Americans rested on healthy soldiers, not ones dying of smallpox, which killed over 30% of those who were infected. To prevent more, Washington ordered vaccinations which were done quietly so that the British would not hear of what the Americans were doing.

Now, back in the late 1700s (I bet many of you didn’t know how long ago vaccinations first started), the smallpox vaccine was very different than the ones we have today (though no one, but military personnel ironically, gets the vaccine any more since it has been eradicated). About 2-3% of the soldiers who were vaccinated died of the vaccine, which is still substantially lower than the 30% who would die of the disease itself.

This first vaccine mandate in American history was a success. The number of smallpox cases in Washington’s army plummeted, and that army went on to defeat the world’s most powerful country at that time. The immunization mandate, as Ron Chernow wrote in his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington, “was as important as any military measure Washington adopted during the war.”

That smallpox mandate continued for the Army, as better versions of the vaccine were developed over time, which caused fewer and fewer serious adverse events.

Currently, there is a large list of vaccines that every soldier, sailor, Marine, officer, and sometimes family member, that is required. Although there are technical religious exemptions, they are extremely rare, since, as we know, no major and most minor religions are opposed to vaccines. Refusing vaccines in the military is tantamount to refusing a lawful order and can lead to serious consequences including a court-martial.

people usa military patriotism
Photo by Pixabay on

Vaccine mandate history – constitutionality

Of course, these vaccine mandates began to be employed by state and local governments to quell smallpox epidemics. And, you guessed it, people were opposed to it.

During the 1900s, 11 states had smallpox vaccine mandates, including Massachusetts, which empowered the board of health of individual cities and towns to enforce mandatory, free vaccinations for adults over the age of 21 if the municipality determined it was necessary for the public health or safety of the community.

In 1902, faced with an outbreak of smallpox, the Board of Health of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts adopted a regulation ordering the vaccination or revaccination of all its inhabitants.

Soon thereafter, a Cambridge pastor, Henning Jacobson, who was born in Sweden which had strict vaccination requirements at that time, refused the vaccine saying that “he and his son had had bad reactions to earlier vaccinations” as children and that Jacobson himself “had been caused great and extreme suffering for a long period by a disease produced by vaccination”.

Jacobson took his opposition to the vaccine all the way to the Supreme Court in 1905, and in the landmark decision in Jacobson v Massachusetts ruled that individual liberty is not absolute and is subject to the police power of the state. Thus, the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination mandates.

This ruling (and several others since 1905) had the effect of making vaccine mandates, either for the public or in schools, constitutional. Whenever I see someone write “I oppose unconstitutional vaccine mandates,” I’ll have to agree, but since every court has ruled that vaccine mandates are constitutional, I don’t think we have unconstitutional ones in this country.

black typewriter machine typing on white printer paper
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on


I know this history of the vaccine mandate article is American-centric, but across the developed world, I think that only the USA has a significant anti-vaccine population that is opposed to these mandates. The consequence of this has been a pandemic that has got its fourth or fifth run, killing over 600,000 people.

Although there are anti-vaxxers across the political spectrum in the USA, recently, especially with the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s the right-wing, Republican states that have led the charge against vaccine mandates.

Since our right-wing is so enamored with the Founding Fathers, imbuing them with a god-like stature, maybe the fact that George Washington, our first President, was a strong supporter of vaccine mandates will make a difference. If it convinces one person, that’s enough for me.

Michael Simpson

Don’t miss each new article!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Liked it? Take a second to support Michael Simpson on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!