A History of Vaccine Mandates — And How People Reacted Then and Now

History shows there are a lot of similarities to how the courts have handled the spread of diseases with vaccines throughout the years — as well as the skeptics that come with them

Vaccination Line in Army Induction Center
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

After a series of disputes between American citizens, the courts have gone back and forth on how to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and many are not in favor of the vaccine mandates enacted by the government. 

But as history shows, there are a lot of similarities to how the courts have handled the spread of diseases with vaccines throughout the years — as well as skeptics that come with them.

Can the government legally mandate a vaccine?

Yes, they can. The government has done so since at least 1904, when the right of government to impose vaccines was established by the Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In a 7-to-2 ruling, the Court said Cambridge, Massachusetts could require all adults to be vaccinated against smallpox.

Since then, a wide range of vaccines have been developed to fight against deadly viruses and the diseases they can cause. There are no laws that prohibit employers from requiring COVID-19 -- or any other -- vaccines. Similarly, schools have long been allowed to require vaccinations.

Though the Supreme Court banned vaccines in 1776 to further control the spread of smallpox, General George Washington continued to secretly mandate vaccines for troops who were entering Philadelphia and hadn’t yet been infected by the disease, which eventually helped conquer the epidemic.

American soldiers have gotten vaccinated during major conflicts since the American Revolutionary War and continue to cooperate in a vaccination routine required by the U.S. military against more than 20 diseases such as flu, tetanus and cholera. 

Is the government allowed to issue fines for not getting vaccinated? 

Yes and this isn’t the first time. 

As part of President Joe Biden’s mandate to require all companies with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated or get tested weekly, the government plans to issue fines for workplaces that refuse to follow protocol as enacted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Employers could face penalties as high as up to $13,600 per violation.

Similarly, while citizens in Cambridge, Massachusetts were dying from the smallpox epidemic between 1901 and 1903, public health officials began issuing compulsory vaccination orders in efforts to reach the 90 percent vaccination rate required for herd immunity.

The state went as far as closing all schools, public libraries and churches to stem the spread of the disease. Though it wasn’t a forced vaccination, those who refused to get vaccinated faced a $5 fine, which is the equivalent of $150 today. 

Are vaccination mandates in schools allowed? 

Public schools have required vaccinations for children for years, with some allowances for exemptions. By 1963, 20 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had vaccination requirements for enrollment into public schools.

The U.S. federal government set up the Childhood Immunization Initiative aimed to increase vaccination rates amongst children against seven diseases: Diptheria, measles, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, and tetanus. The CDC currently recommends that children from 0 to 6 to get 29 doses of 9 vaccines, including a yearly flu shot after 6 months old. 

While all states now require vaccination among children for public school enrollment, there also remains some exemptions, that both vary by state, which are listed here

How have responses looked throughout the years?

Skepticism around vaccines is not new to the United States.

In fact, rules have been altered multiple times in accordance with the climate of each pandemic or epidemic that the country has faced. When the Supreme Court originally issued the right to impose vaccines, they were addressing the views of those in opposition to vaccines in the Jacobson v. Massachusetts case.

Common false concerns center around the alleged unnatural state of vaccines; the belief that they cause autism and claims that the virus isn’t real. Another common argument goes that people should be able to decide for their own bodies whether to get vaccinated or not.

Before the Supreme Court decision was made in 1904, they heard the case of a Massachusetts pastor defending his right to choose not to be vaccinated in which he argued over the invasion of liberty to be fined or imprisoned for refusing to get vaccinated and that one shouldn’t be “subjected to the law.” In response, the Supreme Court took action by addressing the government’s right to impose compulsory vaccination laws to save lives, especially if children and adults can be saved from disease through vaccination. 

Although the major difference between the general response to vaccinations today doesn’t depend on the spread of disinformation that is so widely accessible, but rather the division between two parties that indicates one side is more wrong than the other. 

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