August 3, 2021

President Joe Biden recently said he asked the Defense Department to explore “how and when they will add COVID-19 to the list of vaccinations our armed forces must get, drawing the criticism of people opposed to vaccine mandates.

But those critics have their own detractors.

“George Washington mandated smallpox vaccines for the Continental Army,” reads the text of an image that’s being shared on social media with an illustration of the first president of the United States on horseback.

“Could you imagine if his soldiers behaved like the GOP?” wrote one person who tweeted the image.

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

But this is basically true. According to the Fred W. Smith National Library for Study of George Washington, Washington and his Continental Army “faced a threat that proved deadlier than the British” in the first years of the Revolutionary War — smallpox.

Infrequent outbreaks and wariness of inoculation made his troops very susceptible to the disease,” according to the library. “After heavy losses in Boston and Quebec, Washington implemented the first mass immunization policy in American history.”

Washington issued the order to have all troops inoculated on Feb. 5, 1777, in a letter to John Hancock, who was president of the Second Continental Congress. In another letter, Washington ordered all recruits arriving in Philadelphia be inoculated.

“Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that troops shall be inoculated,” he wrote. “This expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects. 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 virulence we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.”

By the end of 1777, about 40,000 soldiers had been inoculated against the disease.

Washington had initially ordered that no one in the army be inoculated, which was done by infecting them with a less-deadly form of smallpox, because he didn’t want to risk debilitating his men and leaving them vulnerable to a British attack while they recovered.

“The enemy, knowing it, will certainly take advantage of our situation,” he wrote at the time.

But inoculating recruits as soon as they enlisted meant they contracted the milder form of the disease at the same time they were being outfitted for war, and they would be healed by the time they left to join the army, according to the library.

Washington, who had suffered from smallpox as a teenager, strongly believed in the effectiveness of inoculation and persuaded his wife to undergo the procedure in 1776 even as he forbade his troops from being inoculated, National Geographic reported.

Back then, the inoculation process was called variolation, named after the virus that causes smallpox — the variola virus.

It involved exposing people to the virus by scratching material from smallpox sores into their arms or having them inhale it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Variolation was eventually replaced by vaccination after an English doctor named Edward Jenner noticed in 1796 that milkmaids who had gotten cowpox were immune to smallpox, according to the CDC. He guessed that exposure to cowpox could be used to protect people against smallpox and developed a vaccine.

Our ruling

The image claims, “George Washington mandated smallpox vaccines for the Continental Army.”

The shorthanded history is basically right. The smallpox vaccine didn’t exist when Washington was commander in chief of the Continental Army, but the point remains: he ordered the inoculation of troops against smallpox by the means that was then available, variolation.

We rate this post Mostly True.

This fact check was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

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Ciara O'Rourke is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. Previously, Ciara covered local government and public safety for the Austin American-Statesman and fact-checked elected officials and…
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