Good morning, it's Friday April 30, 2021, the day of the week I pass along quotations intended to be inspirational or thought-provoking. Today's comes from George Washington, who was inaugurated in New York City 232 years ago today.
Although his inaugural address was flowery and over-modest, the events we are concerned with took place more than a decade earlier when Washington led the Continental Army. If Gen. Washington had been less decisive in the face of a viral epidemic sweeping through New England and the Eastern Seaboard -- if he had failed to heed the science, in today's parlance -- there never would have been a President Washington, let alone a 1789 inauguration ceremony.
The Americans, as the restive Colonials were already calling themselves, faced two worthy enemies in the fateful summer of 1776. The first was the British army, a well-trained fighting force accustomed to imposing its will on the people of its far-flung empire. The second was an incapacitating and often lethal virus called smallpox. When the Colonials were lured into wasting their precious military resources with incursions into Quebec, it was the microbe as much as musket fire and British artillery that decimated the Americans at engagements such as the Battle of the Cedars outside Montreal.
"Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt a heart of stone," John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams on June 26, 1776. "The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec, this the cause of our disgraces at the cedars."
Adams told his wife that he wished every town in New England had a hospital where citizens and soldiers alike could be inoculated. "The small Pox! The small Pox!" he added with dismay. "What shall We do with it?"
In July 1775, in his second day as commanding general of the American rebels, George Washington made a momentous decision. As the British were laying siege to Boston, Gen. Washington issued orders to quarantine any soldiers and civilians who showed signs of smallpox infection. Non-combatants were isolated in the nearby borough of Brookline; soldiers were moved to a hospital beside a Cambridge pond.
"No Person is to be allowed to go to Fresh-water pond a fishing or on any other occasion as there may be a danger of introducing the small pox into the army," wrote Washington on July 4, 1775.
This all had to be done in secret: Smallpox incapacitated fighting men, and if the British found out that the virus was coursing through the American ranks they might have overrun the town. But the secret held, and Washington's men lived to fight another day. But the shadow of smallpox remained and a year and a half later, in the winter of 1776-1777, it threatened the American army once again while forces were encamped in Morristown, N.J.
This time, Gen. Washington came up with an even more intrepid plan, which he outlined in a Feb. 5, 1777, letter to John Hancock, who served as president of the Second Continental Congress.
"The smallpox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro' the whole Army in the natural way," Washington wrote. "I have therefore determined, not only to inoculate all the troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Dr. Shippen to inoculate the recruits as fast as they come into Philadelphia."
Modern methods of vaccinations had not yet been invented, so inoculating human beings was a daring, even dangerous, gambit. But it worked. Such boldness is often what it takes to win a war. Sometimes, it's needed to win the peace, too, as we've learned in our own time. In any event, that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.