Good morning, it's Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise quotations intended to be uplifting or educational. Today's come from Abigail Adams in 1776. As this country was being founded, Americans faced a highly contagious pathogen far more lethal than coronavirus. This one was called smallpox.
The pandemic that hit in March of that year threatened to derail the American Revolution. The only reason it didn't is that George Washington ordered all his troops inoculated. So yes, there is a precedent for what President Biden did, and a profound one. Yes, the Battle of Saratoga turned the tide in the war for independence against Great Britain. But if Gen. Washington had not ordered the Continental Army to get the 18th century version of a vaccine, Gen. Horatio Gates wouldn't have had enough troops to repel the redcoats trying to march on Albany.
But smallpox also threatened the civil population on these shores, especially around Boston. In the summer of 1776, Washington was defending New York City from attack as the Founding Fathers ratified the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. From her Massachusetts home in what was then called Braintree (but is now Quincy), Abigail Adams and her family were at the epicenter of the smallpox outbreak. But it also was the epicenter of inoculation efforts. While her husband distinguished himself at the Second Continental Congress as possessing (in the words of one anonymous delegate) "the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress," Abigail was trying to keep herself and her children alive by having them inoculated, which itself was a dangerous and painful procedure.
In mid-July 1776, as the fledgling country was basking in the euphoria of the Declaration of Independence written by a "Committee of Five" that included her husband, Abigail Adams and her four children -- daughter Nabby, who was about to turn 11; John Quincy, 9; 6-year-old Charles; and Thomas, not yet 4 -- made the 10-mile trek into Boston. They were joined by many others.
"Such a spirit of inoculation never before took place, the town and every house in it, are as full as they can hold," Mrs. Adams wrote her husband. "I had many disagreeable sensations at the thoughts of coming myself, but to see my children through it I thought my duty, and all those feelings vanished as soon as I was inoculated, and I trust a kind providence will carry me safely through."
Inoculation at that time didn't consist of a shot in the arm that hurts no more than a pinprick. In was a painful ordeal than entailed being actually infected with the disease. It killed some people, up to 10% in some cases. It made everyone sick.
"God grant that we may all go comfortably through the Distemper, the physical part is bad enough I know, " Abigail wrote to John on July 13, 1776. "I knew your mind so perfectly upon the subject that I thought nothing but our recovery would give you equal pleasure, and as to safety there was none. The Soldiers inoculated privately, so did many of the inhabitants and the paper currency spread it everywhere. I immediately determined to set myself about it, and get ready with my children. I wish it was so you could have been with us, but I submit."
Before that letter arrived, John Adams learned from others in the Boston area what Abigail was doing. His concern, and fear, are palpable even when one reads his letter 245 years later. "I am informed that you were about taking the Small Pox, with all the children," he wrote. "It is not possible for me to describe, nor for you to conceive my Feelings upon this occasion. Nothing, but the critical state of our affairs should prevent me from flying to Boston, to your assistance."
With the pandemic making the postal delivery even more sporadic than usual, the letters from this couple, who often addressed each other as "Dearest Friend," were crossing in the mail. Each knew this, but was vexed by it nonetheless, and worried. In a July 21 letter, Abigail wrote, "I have no doubt but that my dearest Friend is anxious to know how his Portia does, and his little flock of children under the operation of a disease once so formidable. I have the pleasure to tell him that they are all comfortable though some of them [are] complaining. Nabby has been very ill, but the eruption begins to make its appearance upon her, and upon Johnny. Tommy is so well that the Dr. inoculated him again today fearing it had not taken. Charly has no complaints yet, though his arm has been very sore."
By late August, it seemed touch-and-go for "Little Charles, who is weak and feeble," as she wrote on Aug. 29. But as September dawned, he had pulled through.
"This is a beautiful morning," Abigail wrote on Sept. 2. "I came here with all my treasure of children, have passed through one of the most terrible diseases to which human nature is subject, and not one of us is wanting."
And that's our quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.