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The Contagion of Liberty

The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution

Andrew M. Wehrman

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A timely and fascinating account of the raucous public demand for smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution and the origin of vaccination in the United States.

The Revolutionary War broke out during a smallpox epidemic, and in response, General George Washington ordered the inoculation of the Continental Army. But Washington did not have to convince fearful colonists to protect themselves against smallpox—they were the ones demanding it. In The Contagion of Liberty, Andrew M. Wehrman describes a revolution within a revolution, where the violent insistence for freedom from disease…

A timely and fascinating account of the raucous public demand for smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution and the origin of vaccination in the United States.

The Revolutionary War broke out during a smallpox epidemic, and in response, General George Washington ordered the inoculation of the Continental Army. But Washington did not have to convince fearful colonists to protect themselves against smallpox—they were the ones demanding it. In The Contagion of Liberty, Andrew M. Wehrman describes a revolution within a revolution, where the violent insistence for freedom from disease ultimately helped American colonists achieve independence from Great Britain.

Inoculation, a shocking procedure introduced to America by an enslaved African, became the most sought-after medical procedure of the eighteenth century. The difficulty lay in providing it to all Americans and not just the fortunate few. Across the colonies, poor Americans rioted for equal access to medicine, while cities and towns shut down for quarantines. In Marblehead, Massachusetts, sailors burned down an expensive private hospital just weeks after the Boston Tea Party.

This thought-provoking history offers a new dimension to our understanding of both the American Revolution and the origins of public health in the United States. The miraculous discovery of vaccination in the early 1800s posed new challenges that upended the revolutionaries' dream of disease eradication, and Wehrman reveals that the quintessentially American rejection of universal health care systems has deeper roots than previously known. During a time when some of the loudest voices in the United States are those clamoring against efforts to vaccinate, this richly documented book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of medicine and politics, or who has questioned government action (or lack thereof) during a pandemic.

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The Contagion of Liberty

Andrew M. Wehrman

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Reviews

A significant contribution to the literature on attempts to control smallpox in the United States as well as to the history of US health care in general. The Contagion of Liberty is a novel, innovative approach in connecting the threat of smallpox in early America with the threat to liberty from Great Britain and the ideology of the American Revolution.

Thoroughly researched and documented. Wehrman provides a nuanced description of smallpox and its history, focused on the thirteen colonies, the Revolutionary Era, and the Early Republic. He makes an original contribution to the history of smallpox inoculation and the early decades of vaccination, as well as the history of disease. By anchoring the story firmly in the political developments of the period, he also makes a substantial contribution to wider American history.

The Contagion of Liberty is innovative, readable, and utterly convincing. Andrew Wehrman leaves me more certain than ever that we cannot understand the Revolutionary War if we do not understand smallpox. To do so is to understand America itself.

An important and revealingly detailed study of late-eighteenth century arguments and local disputes over smallpox inoculation and vaccination. These debates and social conflicts provide a creative sampling device, contributing in granular fashion to our understanding of America's revolutionary generation.

In clear and graceful prose, Wehrman shows smallpox inoculation repeatedly spilling over into everything from class conflict to false claims that Black people could not be immunized. During the American War of Independence, precedent, including Martha Washington's successful inoculation, and what Wehrman calls 'desperate voices from below' dissolved Gen. Washington's qualms about immunizing the Continental Army: arguably his most valuable gift to the nation.

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Book Details

Release Date
Publication Date
Status
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Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
416
ISBN
9781421444666
Illustration Description
14 b&w illus., 2 maps
Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1. Sore Spots: Making Inoculation American
Chapter 2. General Inoculation in Boston
Chapter 3. The Norfolk Riots
Chapter 4. The Siege of Castle Pox
Chapter 5. Creating a Critical Mass
C

Introduction
Chapter 1. Sore Spots: Making Inoculation American
Chapter 2. General Inoculation in Boston
Chapter 3. The Norfolk Riots
Chapter 4. The Siege of Castle Pox
Chapter 5. Creating a Critical Mass
Chapter 6. From Rumors to Remedies
Chapter 7. George Washington's About-Face
Chapter 8. Thirteen Scars
Chapter 9. Inoculation Nation
Chapter 10. Vaccination Pains
Conclusion
Acknowledgements
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Andrew M. Wehrman
Featured Contributor

Andrew M. Wehrman

Andrew M. Wehrman is an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University. A winner of the Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Early American History, his writing has appeared in The New England Quarterly, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post.