OPINION: The promise of the Washington Elm

By Lorraine Connelly

Not only was George Washington a brilliant military tactician, but as has recently been reported in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, he also made a controversial medical decision to stem the tide of smallpox by ordering the mass inoculation of his soldiers.

Authors Richard Gabriel and Karen Metz note in their book, “A History of Military Medicine,” that among the Continental Army regulars, “90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola, the smallpox virus, was the most vicious of them all.”

In 1775, on his way to take command of the Continental Army in Massachusetts, General Washington stopped in Wallingford to purchase gunpowder and to address the concerns of American patriots in front of the elm tree near the Nehemiah Royce House (or the Washington Elm House as it became known). Among the properties of the elm, this species is known for its strong wood and rapid growth, and for its adaptation to a broad range of climates and soils. Like the sheltering elm under which he stood, Washington would soon channel its strength and powers of adaptation when confronted by the ravages of the smallpox virus.

Because inoculations were still a primitive practice, the Continental Congress had issued a proclamation in 1776 prohibiting Surgeons of the Army from inoculating soldiers. However, when faced with the possibility of losing more men to smallpox in 1777, Washington ordered, on the now auspicious date of January 6, the inoculation of all forces coming through Morristown, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. He explained in a letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.” Although the mass inoculation policy was unpopular, Washington remained adamant.

In the rhyme that is history, President Biden, earlier this month, issued a vaccine mandate requiring the federal workforce and companies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated or face weekly testing. The Biden mandate was issued with good reason; we may have won the initial Covid battle, but we are losing the larger war. As reported in The Economist, “Only 54% of Americans are fully vaccinated, meaning the nation is lagging behind its peers. In Canada and Britain, 69% and 65% of people are fully vaccinated, respectively.” President Biden’s vaccine mandate, like Washington’s, is a response to the exigencies of a perilous time.

Already, 24 Republican state attorneys general have taken issue with the vaccine mandate urging the president to reconsider his decision stating that the mandate “represents a threat to individual liberty.” They are threatening to sue the federal government.

In his Farewell Address to Congress, issued 225 years ago this month, President Washington outlined the real threat to liberty and our nascent democracy – partisan politics. “Political parties,” he said, “are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Washington was prescient in describing the real threats that would destroy our American experiment in governance. We see his fears playing out in current debates regarding vaccine and mask mandates as well as in the valorization of the January 6th attack on the Capitol and its proponents. Just as Washington took an unpopular stance to protect his soldiers and secure the Revolution, we are engaged in a different type of warfare whereby an unpopular public health policy may be the very measure that saves the nation from further death and devastation. Just this week, the U.S. exceeded 675,000 deaths from Covid-19, which now surpasses the fatalities resulting from the 1918 influenza pandemic.

If you are wondering about the original Washington Elm, it was uprooted by a storm in the 1890s. However, in 2018, a small scion was discovered in the rear of the Royce House, now owned by the Wallingford Historic Preservation Trust. Master gardener Dick Straub took it home, nurtured it through the winter, and replanted it in the front yard. Like the elm before which Washington stood, our democracy has strong regenerative qualities. It continues to offer promise, is adaptable, and can survive a broad range of elements and challenges. Amid the politics of our present health crisis, we must remember the saving wisdom of Washington by placing the good health of the masses above all else.   

Lorraine S. Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.

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