Smallpox and the American Revolution

It is certainly interesting that, as Joseph Ellis noted, historians have only recently “recognized that the American Revolution occurred within a virulent smallpox epidemic of continental scope that claimed about 100,000 lives.”[1] I think Elizabeth Fenn exuded an extraordinary amount of modesty when she discussed stumbling upon bits and pieces of a story that had not been told in its entirety, a story that was indeed “something big,” and which she finally brought to light more than two centuries after the events in question.[2]

Smallpox was an Old World disease, so the majority of British soldiers possessed a natural immunity to the disease. American colonists, on the other hand, had spent enough generations on this side of the Atlantic that any inherent immunity their immigrant ancestors may have had was long gone.[3] American Indians were particularly susceptible to the ravages of the disease, since their collective exposure to smallpox had only begun in the recent past. Other factors, such as malnourishment, Native American medicinal practices, and genetic predispositions, may have contributed to the enormous and widespread lethality of smallpox among the indigenous population.[4]

Any battlefield makes an excellent breeding ground for diseases of all kinds, and the battlefields of the American Revolution were no different. Large groups of soldiers and civilian refugees were perfect vectors for the spread of smallpox, and the often unsanitary conditions of army and refugee camps only exacerbated the problem of disease transmission. Washington, who had survived smallpox as a young man in the Caribbean, recognized the problem early on during the siege of Boston, and although a relatively primitive inoculation process was available, he was faced with a “thorny dilemma.” If virulent smallpox gained a foothold in his largely unexposed Continental army, it could have a devastating impact. On the other hand, inoculating his troops posed a host of problems as well. If the soldiers were inoculated a few at a time, the virus had a good chance of spiraling into a full-blown epidemic; if Washington chose to inoculate his entire army all at once, the British might be enticed to attack the stricken camp.[5] In the end, Washington did begin a program of inoculation for his Continental soldiers, but it was two years before the inoculations became mandatory.[6]

It is very odd to me that Fenn was the first to put this story together, that it took so long for historians to figure out the enormous part smallpox played in the American Revolution. Diseases have always been a problem during war, though modern medicine has been able to limit the impact in many ways. (As a twenty-first century soldier in Afghanistan, I was required to take anti-malaria medication and treat my uniforms with mosquito repellant.) Given the sheer number and variety of sources referenced by Fenn, it is astounding that earlier historians did not recognize the breadth and scope of smallpox during the Revolution. Perhaps the romantic national mythology of our nation’s founding simply did not have room for the horrifyingly mundane realities of death by disease. A group of brave patriots facing death on Breed’s Hill was far more stirring than a group of their comrades dying of smallpox in a squalid field hospital. Or maybe the fact that many of the wealthier colonists were able to afford the fairly expensive inoculation had something to do with the story’s relegation to the footnotes of history. By the end of the first year of the war, most of the Continental army was composed of the lowest classes of society; the story of their death, either by musket ball or by smallpox, was not as important as the story of Alexander Hamilton charging the redoubt at Yorktown.

[1] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 86.

[2] Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), x.

[3] Ibid., 27-28; Ellis, His Excellency, 86.

[4] Fenn, Pox Americana, 24-27.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] Ellis, His Excellency, 87.


Reading Opinion Essay: John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Reading Ferling’s A Leap in the Dark was, for me, a little like eating an MRE, or Meal, Ready-to-Eat, the American military’s modern ration. An MRE is nutritionally complete and very filling, containing several thousand calories, but the flavor leaves a lot to be desired. In much the same way, A Leap in the Dark was very informative, obviously meticulously researched, and flowed in a logical and chronological order, but I spent much of my time with it feeling as if I was trying to choke down an extremely dry MRE cracker. Ferling’s prose was certainly well-crafted and eminently serviceable, but it lacked a sense of color and humanity. I recently watched a rebroadcast of The Learning Channel’s documentary The Revolutionary War, a series that featured Ferling as a commentator throughout. The historian spoke carefully and meticulously, in even and measured cadences, and the result was a relatively stale monotone that was at odds with the high human drama of the American Revolution. As it turned out, Ferling’s writing style was much like his speaking style, with one leaving the reader and the other the viewer with plenty of information about the subject but little or no emotional connection. I was not able to read very many pages of A Leap in the Dark at any one time, since the arid tediousness of the prose caused my mind to wander. Consequently, I found myself consuming the book in fairly small bites.

I recently read several works by Joseph J. Ellis and Gordon S. Wood, and their prose was much more lively and entertaining. While books such as The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, and His Excellency: George Washington did not attempt to cover the same enormous sweep of history that Ferling wrote about in A Leap in the Dark, Ellis and Wood did a much better job of capturing the humanity of the Founding Fathers and communicating to the reader the drama of the period.[1] The fact that Ferling is a professor of history and was writing for a more academic audience should not be an excuse. Ellis and Wood are distinguished scholars in their own right, and they found a way to combine rigorous academic research protocols with lively and engaging prose.

One thing that I thought Ferling excelled at was his ability to write about the people and events of the Revolutionary era in a detached and non-biased manner. It may have been that very detachment which caused me to find the narrative dull and lifeless, but the manner in which Ferling balanced the competing views of the various participants was very impressive to me. His approach seemed to be one of fully investing himself in the outlook and philosophy of one faction, apparently endorsing that viewpoint, and then later doing the same with the opposition’s outlook. For example, Ferling’s description of Hamilton’s economic policies led me to believe that the author wholeheartedly agreed with the first Secretary of the Treasury. Ferling applauded Hamilton’s brilliant foresight in establishing a modern capitalist economic system, and seemed to fully embrace Hamilton’s approach.[2] Just a few pages later, however, Ferling began writing from the point of view of Jefferson and Madison as they reacted to Hamilton’s overreaching.[3] The result was one in which Ferling apparently endorsed both sides, and neither, thereby giving me a full picture of the issues at stake and allowing me to draw my own conclusions. This is a technique that I may attempt to use in my own future efforts to avoid bias in my writing.

One minor issue I had with the text itself was the surprising number of editorial mistakes. On several occasions I noticed sentences either missing a word or containing an extra word, and in at least one instance I came across a misused homonym. Additionally, there were several lines of text simply missing at the bottom of page two hundred thirty-three, though this was probably more of a printing mistake than an editorial oversight. While I could use context to work my way around extra or missing words, or an incorrect homonym, I had no idea what Ferling intended to say in that brief section of missing text. While these are admittedly minor problems, it was nonetheless surprising to me that a book published by an entity as prestigious as the Oxford University Press should contain so many such errors.

Returning to my original analogy, I will say that I am certainly more full of knowledge about the Revolutionary era than I was before I began choking down Ferling’s dusty prose. Though I found the lighter fare of Ellis and Wood more delicious, A Leap in the Dark provided me with a heavy platter of information that I did not possess before. I learned a lot about the Revolutionary War and the decades immediately before and after, and I learned a little about things to look for in the work of other historians and myself. I just wish I had not been forced to take such small bites.

[1] Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 317-20.

[3] Ibid., 334-41.

The “Mona Lisa” As a Stick Figure: Narrative, Truth, and Revisionist History

Today at the Flag Day and Army Birthday ceremony at Fort Sill, the narrator regaled the audience with the history of our nation’s founding, replete with the standard lore about the establishment of the Continental Army and its role in fighting for and defending our nation’s founding principles. I listened with more interest than usual because I am currently taking a course on the American Revolution, and I am intellectually immersed in the period between the end of the Seven Years War and the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as our nation’s third president. In the past five weeks, I have read thousands of pages about the players and events of that time, and have in many cases read several different accounts of the same events, written by several different historians. My knowledge of the period before I began this course was little more than the mandated mythology presented in public school classrooms, much of it sounding like the narration for an Army Birthday ceremony. As I listened today, it occurred to me how limited–and limiting–this standard mythology is, and how the American Revolution, like all historical events, is entirely to complex to fit into a neat and compact narrative. This revelation fits neatly with other thoughts I have been having lately about the study of history, and I will attempt to elaborate.

First, I need to define a couple of things in an attempt to clear up some common misconceptions. The word “history” is too often used to describe what should be referred to simply as “the past.” “The Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson,” is not “history” in any real sense. Instead, that statement merely refers to an event that happened in the past. In this statement, we are merely informed about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, and who did it.  The true study of history goes far beyond these four Ws into the much more fascinating and instructive realms of why it happened and what the short- and long-term effects and implications were. Unfortunately, this expanded view of history is where controversy enters the equation. For most events of the relatively recent past, it is often fairly simple to establish what, who, when, and where; it is when historians attempt to answer the questions of “why?” and “so what?” that demagogues are scandalized. So, forget the past; let’s talk about history.

As I said, I have read a variety of histories about the American Revolution over the past few weeks, and oddly enough, I have not gotten bored with the subject. One would think that reading about the same people and events over and over would lead to a great deal of boredom, but the opposite has happened. I find myself more interested than ever, and this morning I realized why: rather than the dry, linear, “just the facts” narrative of the ceremony narration, I am being exposed to an ever-expanding number of perspectives about this event. Each new perspective reveals something I had not noticed before, or had not thought of before. It’s as if I am walking around and around an intricate statue or carving, looking now at the detail on the left side, and now at the full effect from the front, then on to the base in the back, and now the tiny scratches on the right side. I am able to begin to see all the individual details while simultaneously appreciating the form and scope of the statue as a whole. But forget sculptures for a moment; let’s discuss paintings.

Imagine for a moment that you have to describe the “Mona Lisa” to someone who has never seen it. You are not allowed to Google it and simply show it to them; you must use all the powers of prose and poetry in your possession to convey the most realistic image of the painting you can to your student. If you’re not very imaginative, you could draw a stick figure of a woman and call it a day. Yes, Mona Lisa was a woman, but does a stick figure do justice to da Vinci’s genius? We really should dig a little deeper. We could call in an expert on color and shading, discuss the items and scenery da Vinci chose to paint in the background, and ruminate about the mysterious smile. Of course, when we do these things, we open the door to differences of opinion, and probably even some controversy. But are we going to allow that risk of controversy to keep us from fully explaining and describing this work of art to our student? Is that fair to the student? To da Vinci?

Much of the “history” taught in undergraduate survey courses and in elementary, middle school, and high school classes (and at Army ceremonies) is like a stick figure of the “Mona Lisa”–it is a very rough approximation of historical truths. The nuance and shading that makes history so fascinating–and makes it come alive for students–is glossed over for a variety of reasons: there is not time to discuss all of the intricacies; students do not have the proper background to fully understand the intricacies; perhaps the intricacies have been deemed politically unpalatable to the state or local board of education. I am currently reading Joseph J. Ellis’s brief biographical study, His Excellency: George Washington. I skimmed over some of the reviews of the book on Goodreads before I began reading it, and most were very positive. I came across one, though, that was very bitter and angry; the reviewer said that the book was so bad that if he hadn’t been on an airplane when he read it, he would have thrown it out the window. His charge was that Ellis had taken too many liberties with history, and had presumed to know too often what Washington’s motivations or thoughts were. I am nearly finished with the book, and I have not found that to be the case at all. Instead, I have found that Ellis–a very distinguished and knowledgeable historian–has written a fascinating psychological study that is very well documented and fully footnoted, and which paints Washington as a great man who, like all people, had personal and professional failings. Ellis does not shrink from discussing those failings, and I suppose that is what upset the Goodreads reviewer so much; perhaps he would prefer that his George Washington remain an American demi-god, immune to and above the human condition that we all struggle with. Though the reviewer did not use the phrase “revisionist history,” the words he did use described the pejorative sense of that phrase that gets kicked around by demagogues. Here’s the key, though: all good history is revisionist history. If it isn’t revisionist history, then it isn’t history at all. History that isn’t revisionist is simply another prosaic retelling of the past, another crude stick-figure drawing of the “Mona Lisa.” The only way to begin to fully understand and appreciate the history of the American Revolution or any other historical event is to study and embrace the multiple revisions that historians have offered over the years. You may disagree with their conclusions, but do so without insisting on a crude stick-figure portrait of the Father of our Country.

Federalist vs. Republican

Joseph Ellis pointed out that there were in fact two “founding moments” in our nation’s history, one in 1776, and the other in 1787-1788. “The first founding declared American independence; the second, American nationhood.”[1] The political battles between the Federalists and the Republicans during the 1790s was a lively debate about which of these two founding moments was more true to American revolutionary ideals.

In the years immediately following the Treaty of Paris, many came to believe that the Articles of Confederation did not provide for a central authority robust enough to hold the fledgling nation together. Without a federal government with the strength to deal effectively with foreign powers in commercial, diplomatic, and military spheres, some feared that the newly-freed colonies would fall back into the orbit of a European monarchy, while others believed that sectional rivalries would divide the states into several regional confederacies.[2] James Madison was more concerned with “protecting the propertied class from the democratic excesses of the American Revolution,” and he set out to establish a stronger national compact with which to do so.[3] Treading carefully between radical proponents of increased national authority and strong state sovereignty, Madison crafted a “’republican remedy’ against radical change.”[4] He believed that the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution would be an effective bulwark against hasty and ill-conceived populist policies, “while ‘at the same time…the spirit and the form of popular government’ could be preserved.”[5] In other words, Madison convinced his fellow delegates that his plan would fool the people into believing that they had more say in their government than they actually had, while simultaneously ensuring that “those who held national office were likely to be men of ‘attractive merit and the most diffuse and established characters.’”[6]

The Federalists were able to gain and maintain control of the government in the 1790s because of two men: George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton consistently displayed an uncanny ability to outmaneuver his political opponents and sway public opinion, and he was able to parlay his personal connections with Washington into policy changes in the new federal government. Washington’s enormous prestige ensured that when he embraced Federalist policies—even when he did not officially embrace the nascent “party” itself—it became that much more difficult for the growing opposition to resist. Jefferson and Madison pushed back against these policies, and wished to see more power devolve to the states. The Republicans, as the opposition party came to be known, eventually triumphed with Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800. This victory was profound for all Americans, as it was the first time in the nation’s short history that power had peacefully transferred from one faction to its opposition.


[1] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 9.

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 274.

[3] Ibid., 273.

[4] Ibid., 292.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

The Past is Present

As I have read through Ferling and Ellis, I have been repeatedly struck by how little the American political scene has changed over the past two hundred thirty-five years. It is often tempting in our day and age to bemoan the lack of civility and honesty in our modern political process, but with a little research it becomes obvious that this is nothing new. We often hear about how one candidate or another allegedly does not adhere to the original intentions of the Founding Fathers, but this is a ridiculous assertion to make. Even when we know with certainty the “original intentions” of the Founders, it is clear that the gulf that separates modern Democrats and Republicans is no wider wide than that which separated Hamiltonian Federalists from Jeffersonian Republicans. Jefferson and Hamilton and their lieutenants manipulated the press as much as any modern political operative; one can easily substitute John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States for MSNBC, and Philip Freneau’s National Gazette for Fox News.[1] The simple fact is that the Founding Fathers did not possess a collective, monolithic view of how the new republic should look. As Ellis pointed out, there were two “founding moments” in our nation’s history; the first occurred in 1776, and was the touchstone for the Jeffersonians, while the second happened at the Constitutional Convention and became the defining moment for the Hamiltonians.[2] The modern heirs to these political legacies do not often seem to know or understand how the whole process played out.

As a brief aside, my studies of the Founders have led me to more greatly admire Adams and Washington. Adams was a bit of an unsung hero, and there was much in Washington’s character to admire. Jefferson, on the other hand, was devious and dissembling, and I have grown almost to despise him. Hamilton was brilliant but a little dangerous, I believe, and I have not been able to decide what I feel about Franklin.

[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 341.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 9.