The Contagion of Liberty

Andrew Wehrman is a historian and author of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution: A timely and fascinating account of the raucous public demand for smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution and the origin of vaccination in the United States.

The Revolutionary War broke out during a smallpox epidemic, and in response, General George Washington ordered the inoculation of the Continental Army. But Washington did not have to convince fearful colonists to protect themselves against smallpox―they were the ones demanding it. In The Contagion of Liberty, Wehrman describes a revolution within a revolution, where the violent insistence for freedom from disease ultimately helped American colonists achieve independence from Great Britain.

Release date: December 6, 2022

Winner of the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize

Finalist for the LA Times Book Prize for History

Order now from: JHU Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble,, and more!

The Audio book version was released on December 27, 2022 by Tantor Audio and narrated by Timothy Andrés Pabon. It’s available from Audible,, Spotify, B&N Audiobooks, and more!

Vaccination is Patriotic

The Contagion of Liberty is a thought-provoking history offering a new dimension to our understanding of both the American Revolution and the origins of public health legislation and practice in the United States.

While the practice of inoculating against smallpox was unknown in the American Colonies, and in most of Europe, the practice was widespread throughout Asia and Africa and was first introduced to the colonists in Boston by an enslaved African belonging to a local minister. Skepticism of the practice was strong initially, not least because of whom had introduced it, but was ultimately embraced as an All-American cure once its effectiveness was proven. However, as Wehrman explains, racism continued to threaten the health of not only enslaved peoples, but the populace at large, as slave-owning Southerners resisted vaccinating their slaves and ultimately slowed the drive to eradicate the disease.

For the people

Across the colonies, poor Americans rioted for equal access to medicine, while cities and towns shut down for quarantines, but unlike today there were no protests about these quarantines or mass inoculation efforts as violations of “personal liberty,” just a fervent desire by the populace for equal access to healthcare. In Marblehead, Massachusetts, sailors burned down an expensive private hospital just weeks after the Boston Tea Party because it was not providing inoculations to all people.

In THE CONTAGION OF LIBERTY, Wehrman reveals that the uniquely American rejection of universal healthcare systems has deeper roots than previously known. During a time when some of the loudest voices in the United States are those clamoring against efforts to vaccinate, this richly documented book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of medicine and politics, or who has questioned government action (or lack thereof) during a pandemic.

Awards and Honors

Massachusetts Historical Society: Winner, Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize:The Contagion of Liberty is an important and timely study that provides deep insights for scholars seeking to better understand the social, cultural, and especially political circumstances of inoculation and public health management generally, including its implications for how Americans understand federalism and competing definitions of “liberty” itself. We congratulate Professor Andrew Wehrman on this indispensable and essential work of scholarship.”

Harvard Public Health: One of the best books on public health published in 2022

Los Angeles Times: Finalist, LA Times Book Prize for History: “Fascinating and original, this book is a necessary chapter in our long struggle with our obligations to one another.”


“It is a tale of startling contemporary relevance.”Nature

“In The Contagion of Liberty, Andrew Wehrman weaves together dozens of individual stories and their layered historical contexts to provide a fascinating account of smallpox in America, from colonial times through the early republic. Wehrman, an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University, has produced a deeply researched and gracefully written volume.”The Wall Street Journal

The book, although rooted in history, holds contemporary lessons for American public health.” Harvard Public Health

Wehrman’s study is timely and thought provoking. The Contagion of Liberty will appeal to broad audiences, ranging from scholars hoping to historicize long-term disputes over the rocky, often-contradictory birth of American “liberty,” to casual readers hoping to make some sense of our present struggles with various diseases.”—H-Sci-Med-Tech

“We can see why Wehrman named the book The Contagion of Liberty, as people fought for their right to remain healthy and to protect their communities.”The Lancet

“The book shines in bringing nuance and context to these history-making decisions...Public health officials, and those with an interest in public health law in particular, would benefit from The Contagion of Liberty.”American Journal of Public Health

Wehrman “harnesses available government data and fistfuls of great anecdotes while situating it in a thorough historical context. The Contagion of Liberty is both timely and sturdy in its findings. It belongs on any list of the best history books of 2023.”—American History

Contagion of Liberty will provide undergraduates with an accessible and valuable example of the long history of American healthcare controversies.—H-War

“The strength and clarity of the argument and variety of evidence brought to bear make this book a must-read for students and scholars of the period. Wehrman demonstrates that the history of health and disease are essential — not supplemental — to our understanding of the past.”Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

The Contagion of Liberty illuminates the debates over personal rights and community responsibilities adding another layer to our understanding of the unfinished goals of the American Revolution.”Journal of the Early Republic

Advance Praise

The Contagion of Liberty is innovative, readable, and utterly convincing. Andrew Wehrman leaves me more certain than ever that we cannot understand the Revolutionary War if we do not understand smallpox. To do so is to understand America itself.

-- Elizabeth A. Fenn, University of Colorado, winner of the Pulitzer prize and author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82

An important and revealingly detailed study of late-eighteenth century arguments and local disputes over smallpox inoculation and vaccination. These debates and social conflicts provide a creative sampling device, contributing in granular fashion to our understanding of America's revolutionary generation.

-- Charles E. Rosenberg, Harvard University, author of The Cholera Years and Our Present Complaint: American Medicine, Then and Now

In clear and graceful prose, Wehrman shows smallpox inoculation repeatedly spilling over into everything from class conflict to false claims that Black people could not be immunized. During the American War of Independence, precedent, including Martha Washington's successful inoculation, and what Wehrman calls 'desperate voices from below' dissolved Gen. Washington's qualms about immunizing the Continental Army: arguably his most valuable gift to the nation.

-- Woody Holton, University of South Carolina, winner of the Bancroft Prize and author of Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution

A rollicking account of smallpox in the era of the American Revolution, when public health populism meant demand from below for a state-sponsored inoculation campaign. George Washington's legendary order to inoculate the Continental Army now appears as the culmination of decades of popular politics around freedom not from government but from disease.

-- John Fabian Witt, Yale Law School, winner of the Bancroft Prize and author of American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to Covid-19

A significant contribution to the literature on attempts to control smallpox in the United States as well as to the history of US health care in general. The Contagion of Liberty is a novel, innovative approach in connecting the threat of smallpox in early America with the threat to liberty from Great Britain and the ideology of the American Revolution.

-- Peter McCandless, College of Charleston, author of Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry

Thoroughly researched and documented. Wehrman provides a nuanced description of smallpox and its history, focused on the thirteen colonies, the Revolutionary Era, and the Early Republic. He makes an original contribution to the history of smallpox inoculation and the early decades of vaccination, as well as the history of disease. By anchoring the story firmly in the political developments of the period, he also makes a substantial contribution to wider American history.

-- Jeanne E. Abrams, University of Denver, author of Revolutionary Medicine: The Founding Fathers and Mothers in Sickness and in Health


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