So how would the Founding Fathers view the great mask debate of 2020? Pandemics did occur in the 18th century — smallpox, especially, was a recurring nightmare for urban communities. Some people received a primitive form of inoculation, but it certainly was never mandated by local authorities. The risk of dying from the procedure was only slightly less than the chance of succumbing to the disease so such a requirement would have made little sense anyway. History provides us no meaningful guide in how budding Republicans would handle a national health emergency.
We do know the Founders were extremely wary of encroachments on civil liberties and would go to great lengths to protect them. But consider the actual infringements on individual natural rights that led to revolution — Jefferson outlined them in the Declaration. The “abuses and usurpations” include denial of trial by jury, suspension of legislatures, and taxes imposed without consent. These are the natural rights violations Locke and the Founders worried might threaten civil society.
Other insults to our rights are far less onerous and should be recognized as an easy price to pay for adhering to the social contract. It’s why I take my shoes off at airport terminals and avoid target practice in my backyard. A requirement to temporarily don a face mask to protect the health and well-being of my neighbor is no apocalyptic threat to my civil liberties. Jefferson and Franklin would laugh at such a notion. Or they would be distressed to think that future generations could think them guilty of such egocentric beliefs. As another Founding Father put it, “the safety of the whole is the interest of the whole.”
By wearing a mask, I express an American ideal, civic virtue: a concern and regard for my fellow citizen. We should honor the true self-sacrifice that characterized the Founding Fathers; invoking their spirit in order to dispute petty inconveniences simply cheapens their legacy.
Steven Krug is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, specializing in Colonial American and early modern European intellectual history.