The founders believed, as James Madison wrote, that Americans possessed sufficient virtue to summon the courage and conviction to do the right thing in the face of the most trying circumstances. This might mean that citizens would find it necessary to set aside their personal interests and ambitions in pursuit of the common good.
At this critical juncture in American history, when COVID-19, especially the virulent delta variant, is menacing our nation’s public health and threatening our economic recovery, the return of children to school and our overall psychological need to restore a sense of normalcy, it is necessary for the citizenry to step up and get vaccinated. Thus far, many in the Midwest and western states, including North Dakota, Wyoming and Idaho, have failed to perform their civic responsibility. Reports tell the gloomy story: only 37 to 40 percent of citizens in these states have bothered to obtain a vaccine, protecting themselves, and others, from this deadly virus.
“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea,” Madison observed in Federalist No. 55. Madison’s fellow founder and delegate to the Constitutional Convention, George Washington, supposed that there is a “portion of virtue and honor” among the people to place confidence in the theory of representative government. The basis of civic virtue, they and other founders agreed, lay in patriotism — love of one’s country — which implied a willingness to sacrifice personal interests to preserve and protect the nation.
This is a familiar story. In World War I, and again in World War II, and in subsequent wars, Americans of various political stripes set aside their personal lives and professional ambitions to answer the trumpet call to protect their families, friends and fellow citizens across the country. There were pockets of voices that countered with the refrain that participation was a “personal choice,” but nothing approaching the swelling chorus of anti-vaxxers in our time who refuse vaccination, even though that medical procedure is the most surefire means of protecting our brothers and sisters, and preventing a renewal of economic regulations that may shrink, slow and possibly shut down businesses throughout the land.
Let’s be clear. Those who refuse to be vaccinated do have a point: it is a matter of personal choice. Of course it is, but that doesn’t begin to address the question of civic duty, a concept that the founders regarded as equal in importance to the assertion of rights and liberties. Almost everything in life is a matter of personal choice. Those who drive cars can “choose” whether to obey red lights and follow the rules of the road. People can “choose” whether to inflict harm and even commit murder. Those acts are a matter of “personal choice.” But where does that get us in our effort to fight the delta variant, and others sure to follow?
The concept of civic duty is not beyond debate, of course, for we can argue about the parameters of responsibility, and when individual liberties should not be curtailed in the name of responsibilities to others. In the case of a pandemic, however, where the refusal to become vaccinated provides the crucial lifeblood to a virus seeking a host, civic duty overwhelms a personal choice to remain unvaccinated and the “right” to harm others.
That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court said in the 1905 landmark ruling in which the Justices upheld a Massachusetts law that required adult residents of the state to be vaccinated against smallpox. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the Court reasoned that the Constitution “does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from all restraints.” In a case that remains the law of the land more than a century later, the Justices held that the health and safety of the nation took precedence over the objections of Hennings Jacobson, who claimed that the state’s compulsory vaccination statute was “unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive, and, therefore, hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such a way as to him seems best.” Readers will recognize these arguments in the objections of those who, today, resist the COVID-19 vaccination.
For many years, states across the country have exercised sweeping “police powers” a category of authority that the framers of the Constitution entrusted to state governments to pass laws to protect the “health, morals, welfare and safety” of the people. Most of our fellow citizens rarely object to the exercise of this authority to require, for example, immunization of school children, from preschool through 12th grade, as a requirement to attend school. Most don’t complain, either, about mandatory seat belts or child safety seats, and most don’t object to indoor smoking prohibitions or the state laws requiring automobile owners to carry liability insurance.
Passage of these laws, and others, contribute greatly to the heath and safety of our neighbors. Some may view these statutes and regulations as inconvenient, and possibly an infringement of their freedom to make personal choices, but as the framers of the Constitution believed, sacrifice of some personal interests as a function of civic virtue is precisely what a republican form of government requires. If the animating principle of republicanism is somehow virtue, it would be nice to see it voluntarily instituted to save lives, as Americans readily and enthusiastically demonstrated in the first and second world wars. If Americans don’t line up for the COVID vaccine, we can expect to see, sooner or later, the enactment of mandatory vaccination laws, resting on the pillars of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts.