Saturday, June 20, 2020


In a few hours, President Trump will hold a large indoor rally in Oklahoma, a state where coronavirus cases are rising rapidly. Six members of the Trump campaign's advance team have already tested positive for the virus. An NBC story about the pre-rally crowd waiting to enter the arena is headlined "Outside Trump's Tulsa Rally Site, Few Face Masks and No Social Distancing." The crowd won't be required to wear masks during the event; undoubtedly, many of them believe that mask mandates are an unconstitutional infringement on basic American freedoms, and believe that the recent lockdowns were also violations of our rights as Americans.

Are they right? In the midst of an epidemic, would early Americans have rejected public health measures as infringements on their lberty?

No. I recently found a 1992 paper titled "Public Health Practices in the Colonial and Federalist Periods." The author is Wendy S. Parmet, who is a law professor at Northeastern University and the director of Northeastern's Program on Health Policy & Law; her books include Populations, Public Health, and the Law.

Here's what Parmet writes about public health in New England in the late 1700s.
In the early years of the Republic, long before the sanitary and progressive movements of the late 1800s, the General Court [the Massachusetts state legislature] ... had enacted legislation providing for a standing board of health for Boston and health powers for other local officials.... the statutory scheme interwove regulation and protection. A statute of 1797 authorized selectmen to
take care and make effectual provision in the best way they can, for the preservation of the inhabitants, by removing such sick or infected person or persons, and placing him or them in a separate house or houses, and by providing nurses, attendance, and other assistance and necessaries for them; which ... shall be at the charge of the parties themselves, their parents or masters (if able) or otherwise at the charge of the town or place whereto they belong: and in case such person or persons are not inhabitants of any town or place within the State, then at the charge of the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts].
Once Edward Jenner's new smallpox vaccine was introduced into the Commonwealth, the General Court enacted a law requiring every town lacking a board of health to appoint a vaccination commission, effectively providing at least partial public subsidy for the vaccination of all inhabitants.... thousands were vaccinated and the incidence of smallpox continued to decline. Moreover, the public bodies of Massachusetts had shown once again the necessity of public health regulation and the relationship between limits on freedom and provision of care.
And in New York:
... the post-Revolutionary era saw renewed civic attention to the problems of health and sanitation. In 1784, the colonial quarantine laws were officially reenacted by the state of New York.... Public money also helped support private institutions which provided vaccinations for the poor in the early years of the nineteenth century.

The yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s greatly influenced public health policies in the mid-Atlantic states and led to more structured and vigilant approaches. New York City responded to the crisis by isolating the ill and enacting sanitation orders. In 1796, New York State enacted comprehensive health legislation which created the New York City Health Office, granted the city authority to enact sanitary ordinances, and further developed the city's quarantine system. When another major epidemic struck in 1798, the city council appointed a special health committee with almost unlimited powers.... A report following the epidemic urged that the city be given even more authority to inspect buildings, enforce sanitation, and plan for a fresh water supply. The report stressed that the public good had to take precedence over any individual inconveniences that might occur. Following receipt of the report, the city council drafted and the state legislature enacted legislation authorizing the appointment of street commissioners to carry out all laws for "the cleansing of the City and promoting the Health thereof."
The management of public health in Philadelphia was less stringent (and the spread of smallpox and yellow fever was worse as a result).
This lack of organized structure, however, was not an expression of laissez faire ideology. Although the Mayor of Philadelphia eventually called upon a citizen's committee to help the city through the epidemic, the authorities did not assume the epidemic to be a matter of private responsibility.... The citizens committee took over only after civil authority had prove inadequate. Moreover, the committee, with the mayor at its helm, clearly acted as a public body wielding de facto public authority.

The inhabitants of federalist Philadelphia, like others facing epidemics during this period, never questioned whether government should exercise extraordinary authority in response to the epidemic. The debate was over the nature of the response. Positions depended upon views of the etiology of the disease as well as politics. Contagionists, who were most often Federalists, favored quarantine and the closing of the port.... Sanitarians, also known as localists, were most often Jeffersonian Republicans. Not surprisingly, they favored sanitary reform and keeping the port open.... But almost everyone agreed on the need for some public response. In fact, a year after the epidemic, a standing board of public health was finally established to prevent the type of crisis that had occurred.
These were contemporaries of the Founding Fathers. They didn't believe the fight against contagion was strictly a matter of individual choice. Trumpist conservatives are defining "freedom" in a way early Americans would not have recognized.

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