By Nancy Spannaus

May 2, 2020—The upsurge of public demonstrations against the public health measures being taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 – and even denouncing them as “tyranny” — triggered this question in my mind: What would George Washington have done in the face of such resistance?

A demonstration at the California capital May 2.

General Washington, you may recall from my earlier post, declared a full quarantine of his Army in order to stop the spread of small pox. It was strictly enforced, including kept secret, to prevent leaks to the British. He then went on to sign an official Congressional Act of Quarantine against the threat of yellow fever in 1796.

President Washington’s response to the Whiskey Rebellion was the first thing that came to my mind in response to these ugly demonstrations. There he went so far as to put together a military force to prevent the increasing violent resistance to the whiskey tax, which included physical attacks on Federal agents. Ultimately, some of the ringleaders were even convicted of treason, and sentenced to death. They were saved by a magnanimous pardon by Washington himself.

The more relevant precedents, perhaps, are the measures Washington and his successors put into effect against the scourges of yellow fever during the 1790s. Their strictness reflects his, and his closest collaborator Alexander Hamilton’s, view of the priority of the public’s health over irresponsible demands for “freedom” and “liberty.”

“An Act Relative to Quarantine”, 1 Stat. 474, was adopted by the Third Congress and signed by George Washington without much controversy. That law consisted of a single paragraph which provided as follows:

. . . That the President of the United States be, and he is hereby authorized, to direct the revenue-officers and the officers commanding forts and revenue-cutters, to aid in the execution of quarantine and also in also in the execution of the health-laws of the states, respectively, in such manner as may to him appear necessary.

As today, the execution of the quarantine laws was left to the states. However, the President was given broad discretion to deploy Federal officials to execute the laws. (For more on the law and its background, click here.)

Washington led the army against the Whiskey Rebellion, and then pardoned those convicted.

A superseding law on quarantine, passed in 1799, broadened these presidential powers, including the authorization for the President to relocate the operations of the Federal government, should the health situation make it necessary.

Yes, the Founding Fathers took public health seriously, advancing state, city, and Federal measures which extended from enforcing quarantine, to improving the public water supply[1] and establishing the rudiments of a public health system.[2]

In fact, if we had followed the principles of Hamilton’s American System, we would have had the capability for mass testing for the virus that would have prevented the need for such broad quarantining today. Where are the demonstrations demanding Federal resources for mass testing, sufficient protective equipment, and the necessary drugs?

How many deaths is it going to take for us to learn the lessons of Founding Fathers Washington’s and Hamilton’s commitment to public health?

[1] The 1798 yellow fever epidemic in New York City led to a campaign to improve the public water system in the City, a campaign which led Alexander Hamilton to draft a detailed proposal for improved waterworks. The plan was ultimately sabotaged by none other than Aaron Burr.

[2] The national Public Health Service traces its beginnings to legislation establishing Federal hospitals for ailing seamen, passed during the Adams administration. Alexander Hamilton has proposed a hospital for that purpose back in 1792.


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