By Maurizio Valsania, Professor of American History, Università di Torino

President Joe Biden has mandated vaccines for a large part of the American workforce, a requirement that has prompted protest from those opposed to the measure.

Meanwhile, a similar move in New York City to enforce vaccinations has resulted in more than a dozen businesses’ being fined for flouting the rules. The basic idea behind the objections: Such mandates, which also extend to requirements to wear masks and quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, are a breach of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

The objectors ask: Are mandates un-American?

As a scholar who has spent decades trying to unravel the hurdles that mark the beginning of this nation, I offer some facts in response to that question – a few very American facts: Vaccination mandates have existed in the past, even though they have similarly sparked popular rage.

No vaccination foe, no latter-day fan of the Gadsden Flag’s “DON’T TREAD ON ME” message, would ever gain the posthumous approval of the American founders.

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest of the group cultivated different visions about America. But they agreed on one principle: They were unrelenting on the notion that circumstances often emerge that require public officials to pass acts that abridge individual freedoms.

Keen sense of civic duty

Most of the founders, to begin with, were slave owners, not especially concerned about trampling over and abridging the rights of the persons they held in bondage. But even when they dealt with those they deemed to be their peers, American citizens, their attitude was rather authoritarian – at least by today’s standards.

In 1777, during the American Revolution, Washington had his officers and troops inoculated against smallpox. The procedure was risky. But for Washington, the pros outweighed the cons. It was an order, an actual mandate, not an option that individuals could discuss and eventually decide.

“After every attempt to stop the progress of the small Pox,” Washington explained to the New York Convention, “I found, that it gained such head among the Southern Troops, that there was no possible way of saving the lives of most of those who had not had it, but by introducing innoculation generally.”

During the summer of 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, then the American capital. It shattered the city’s health and political infrastructure. Food supplies dwindled; business stopped. Government – federal, state and municipal – was suspended. Within just three months, 5,000 out of nearly 55,000 inhabitants died of the infection.

Public hysteria took off. Philadelphians at first pinned the outbreak on the arrival of refugees from the French colony of Saint-Domingue who were escaping that island’s slave revolution.

But there was also heroism. Black clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, for example, tirelessly transported the sick, administered remedies and buried the dead. Urged on by Governor Thomas Mifflin, the Pennsylvania state Legislature imposed sweeping quarantines. And almost everyone complied.

Henry Knox, then the U.S. secretary of war, didn’t object. Knox had fought during the Revolution. He had risked his life on many battles. He had developed a keen sense of what “civic duty” means: “I have yet six days quarantine to perform,” he wrote to President Washington, “which of the choice of evils is the least.”

‘Without a flinch’

The epidemic didn’t abate as quickly as expected. By September 1794 the yellow fever lingered in Baltimore, where it had spread from Philadelphia. In 1795 it reached New York City.

One John Coverdale, from Henderskelfe, Yorkshire, England, wrote President Washington a long letter. He advocated more drastic measures, including three weeks of quarantine and policemen strategically placed in every corner to hinder people from passing from zone to zone; and he wanted people “to carry with them certificates either of their coming from places not infected or of their passing the line by permission.”

In other words, a quarantine, lockdown and vaccine passports. No politician we know of at the time considered such measures un-American. In May of 1796, Congress adopted, and President Washington signed, the first federal quarantine law. There wasn’t much controversy. In 1799, Congress passed a second and more restrictive quarantine law. President Adams signed it without a flinch.

‘Ambition’ vs. public good

So apparently it’s not certificates, quarantines and vaccine mandates that are un-American, as some maintain today. The argument that individual rights trump the greater good is un-American, or at least out of step with American tradition. It’s an attitude that the founders would have put under the encompassing banner of “ambition.”

“Ambition” comes when individuals are blinded by their little – or large – egotisms and personal interests. They lose track of higher goals: the community, the republic, the nation. In the most severe cases, ambition turns anti-social.

Ambitious individuals, the founders were sure, are persons stripped of their membership in a community. They choose to relegate themselves to their solitary imagination. They have become slaves to their own opinions.

Alexander Hamilton was tired of being turned into the butt of endless accusations: “It shall never be said, with any color of truth, that my ambition or interest has stood in the way of the public good.”

When facing a quarantine, a mandate, or similar momentary abridgments of their liberties, many Americans today react the same way Hamilton did. Like Hamilton, they look beyond themselves, their opinions, their interests. They don’t lose sight of the public good. Others remain ambitious.