“I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly … “

Some parents today do not want their children to receive certain vaccinations fearing they may cause conditions like autism. In eighteenth-century America there was controversy over smallpox inoculations. It’s true that there were at times debilitating effects. Abigail Adams explained the lapse in correspondence with her friend Mercy Otis Warren in 1777: “My eyes ever since the smallpox have been great sufferers. Writing puts them to great pain.” Warren replied that she too had problems: “weakness … feebleness of my limbs, and pains … sufficient to damp the vigor of thought and check … literary employments.”

Attitudes toward inoculation were mixed: some religious leaders considered it “a distrust of God’s overruling care;” some communities supported it, others passed laws against it. Mary Bartlett reported to her husband (a doctor who was in Philadelphia having just signed the Declaration of Independence) that hospitals were being set up in New Hampshire to inoculate people.

Kingstown July 13th 1776P. S. I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly as boston is Shut up with it & People flocking in for innoculation; the Select men of portsmouth have Petitiond to the Committy of Safty now Setting in Exeter; for leave to fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis for the Small Pox and liberty is accordingly granted and the inhabitance of Exeter intend to Petition for the Same libirty.

Mary Silliman described to her parents how her husband dealt with people intent upon preventing inoculation.

[Fairfield, Connecticut] April 11, 1777You know Mr. [Gold Selleck] Silliman is state attorney … he has frequently pressing desires sent him from the neighbouring Towns that he should do something about stoping Inoculation. Then he has to send Guards to collect the infected to one place and order to let none come in or go out with out liberty. But at Stratford they have been so unruly and dispers’d the Guard, he has been oblig’d at the desire of about 80 respectable inhabitants to issue out positive orders to desist and as the civil law could have no affect they should be punnish’d by Martial. This has had its desired effect. None that we know of has transgress’d since.

As the War shifted to the South, British promises of freedom attracted thousands of runaway slaves, both male and female, who performed many useful services. This population, however, soon became a liability to the British because of their susceptibility to smallpox. Thousands contracted the disease and were cruelly quarantined and left to die. Thomas Jefferson believed that of the 30,000 Virginia slaves that had joined the British “about 27,000 died of the small pox and camp fever.”

For comments and letters by women, see In the Words of Women, pages 177 and 179. The religious objection to inoculation and Jefferson’s estimate can be found on pages 36 and 133 respectively in Pox Americana, the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A Fenn (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), an excellent book on the subject.

posted January 24th, 2013 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Epidemics, Inoculation, Slaves/slavery


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