Self-styled “patriots” protesting shelter-in-place orders and lockdowns loudly warn against Big Government stealing our freedoms. Protesters in recent weeks have claimed governmental overreach is seizing this crisis to strengthen the surveillance powers of the deepest Deep State. Fine: It’s a free country. Our right to free speech allows us to express any view. As the Irish say: “There’s plenty of sky for plenty of birds.”
Beloved Texan Lady Bird Johnson was right: “The clash of ideas is the sound of freedom.” Spirited debate is as American as Dr Pepper, baseball and the wildest of roller-coasters.
One practice of some lockdown protests, however, should be challenged right off. Frequently, protesters claim to defend the views of our Founding Fathers by flying a yellow flag from the 1770s inscribed with the words “Don’t Tread on Me!” and featuring a timber rattler ready to strike. While bearers of these latter-day serpent-adorned Gadsden flags are certainly entitled to their self-centered views, they ought to learn our history a little better. American cinematographer Scott Ferguson observed: “I’ve been hearing a lot of people invoking the Founders while agitating to reopen. For the record, we can see how the Founders would feel about COVID-19 because there was a deadly smallpox pandemic during the American Revolution. George Washington’s response was unequivocal. Stop trying to legitimize your irresponsible and dangerous behavior by invoking the Founders.”
What’s Ferguson talking about? A viral epidemic indeed spread across the colonies from 1775 to 1782. This proved deadlier than what we now experience. About 3 of every 10 Americans who contracted smallpox died. Victims first began to experience minor symptoms and often spread the virus. As it quickly crossed into Mexico (modern-day Texas), it decimated Native American communities. Slaves seeking freedom by escaping into lines of the British military often carried the disease. Fortunately for the British, most of their army was already protected from the virus because of England’s previous viral outbreaks and the immunity these rendered.
As commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, a survivor of the virus and thus immune, enforced strict quarantines against any American soldier who began showing symptoms or who came from areas of widespread infection. John Adams, ever blunt in airing his views, in 1776 described this threat to the cause of freedom accurately enough: “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together.”
When Washington’s troops were nearing Boston as an outbreak exploded there, the Father of Our Country forbade all contact between civilians and soldiers. With the encouragement and examples of John (and Abigail) Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and many others, Washington acknowledged the relevance of science in this Age of Enlightenment and decreed that all soldiers be inoculated (that is, with a live strand of the virus). New recruits were forcibly vaccinated and then quarantined for two weeks (without Netflix!) while recovering from symptoms. Even though some died from these inoculations, Washington took that risk to prevent devastation of our army at the hands of an invisible enemy.
As Washington observed in mandating inoculation, “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we should have more to dread from it than the sword of the enemy.”
Palm Beach columnist Frank Cerabino, speaking recently of those protesting such rigorous public health restrictions, correctly noted that, “if it were 1775, and we were in Boston,” Washington would be “locking them up on a charge of aggravated ignorance.” And that “if it weren’t for an unpleasant, prolonged, social-distancing health policy practiced by the original wavers of that flag, they (latter-day Americans, including the protesters) would all be drinking high tea and watching cricket today.” Washington for one knew that a sick army cannot easily win a revolutionary war. Under Washington, the extent of smallpox among the Continental Army fell from 20% to less than 1%.
Sadly, that stoic and selfless patriot displayed more cool-headed resolve and strategic insight in crisis than most of the self-envisioned “patriots” on statehouse steps can muster for all their tightly clenched arms and high-flying rhetoric.