Vax Populi

Nathan Allen
5 min readFeb 27, 2023


Vaccines, Money and the Paradox of America

The Puritans were a paradox: children of the enlightenment firmly driven by pre-enlightenment values. They approached problems with the cold rationality of scientists but solved them in an ethos that could be traced from the twelfth century back to ancient Greece. They had separated from Europe to purify themselves from the encroaching managerial impurities of church and state but also from the metastasizing canker of radical individualism. They were forging an intentional future, and it created a nation fearlessly fueled by the promise of progress while maintaining the values of a distant past.

This paradox lived in Cotton Mather. The direct descendant of the founders of the rebel colony, Mather was responsible for much of the legal analysis that followed the Salem witchcraft trials (an analysis of what he referred to as “the Invisible World”). Any proposed conflict between science and religion would find no evidence in Mather; this leading Puritan minister wrote extensively on scientific topics and was one of the world’s foremost experts on spiders. Mather’s masterwork, Biblia Americana, was an extended argument that America was the promised land of harmony between science and religion. For Mather, science was a window into the mind of God. His coldly analytical approach did not conflict with his faith, and his scientific pursuits were the result of intentional wonder at the natural world.

It was with this attitude that Mather approached the colony’s most vexing problem. By 1720, an entire generation of Bostonians had avoided smallpox. For Mather, this meant not that they were lucky but rather that they were uniquely susceptible. Ships were routinely quarantined in Boston harbor, but those quarantines often failed, and one passenger with smallpox could devastate the town as the smallpox mortality rate often reached thirty percent. Mather set out to discover what he believed was God’s solution. He’d heard of inoculation from Africans and Greeks in Constantinople. He interviewed locals who’d also heard about the inoculation process. He wrote letters to Constantinople and formulated a plan. Once he understood the process, he would experiment on small groups of willing participants and compare the outcomes to those of the uninoculated. With this process, he had invented what would later become clinical trials.

Opposition to Mather’s plan was fierce. Led by William Douglass, the anti-inoculation group championed the European position that intentionally infecting the healthy with smallpox was nothing more than irrational “poison.” William Douglass was in a unique position of being a European-trained medical doctor, so his credentials as a medical expert could be leveraged to sway the public. Preying on fear and ignorance, the anti-inoculaters stoked the people into a frenzy and leveraged the media to infect the population with panic over Mather’s grand experiment. Dr. Douglass and other investors launched a newspaper — helmed by Ben Franklin’s older brother James — to denounce inoculations and attack those who supported this “poison.” The anti-inoculation mob eventually invented the media ad hominem against Mather and his supporters, launching salacious rumors in print and grenades (“granado”) at his home. The media, led by medical expert Dr. Douglass, had whipped up a frenzy against Mather.

Intertwined with the inoculation media war was a fierce battle over another inhabitant of “the invisible world.” Paper money had first been functionally implemented in Boston in 1690, and, by the 1720s, paper money had become so widely circulated that the question of whether such currency would be the future of the colonies had to be answered. Paper money operated in “the Invisible World,” as its value was not contained in the thing itself — unlike gold and silver coins. The value of paper money was an expression of some communal trust, some invisible economic agreement.

The inoculation and money debates in 1720s Boston were the birth of what was becoming an American specialty: a war of ideas in the media, or, as the colonists called it, “a paper war.” There was a deluge of science from plate tectonics to Newtonian physics to new economic theories about money supply, and the Puritans were uniquely capable of rational acceptance of the invisible world. And from this ease with things unseen, the early American colonies implemented both the largest public vaccination program in the West and the grandest paper-money free market experiment in the world. Adam Smith would later recognize this free market as the “invisible hand,” but, by the time Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, the Puritans had long before constructed the Castle William Inoculation Hospital near Boston and had already built a civilization fluent in things invisible.

The culture of the American experiment was forged from the paradox of a deeply religious people that rejected superstition. This culture was solidified in the 1720s inoculation and money paper wars in the context of the greater question of authority. Ultimately Dr. Douglass’ argument was not so much about the invisible world of viruses as it was a rejection of a New World that trained its own doctors. For Dr. Douglass, only experts with the right credentials could be authorities. And the question about money was whether it should be controlled by the merchant princes of Boston and London or whether that power could be shared with the rural tradesmen and farmers.

In the end, the Puritans were very confident that it was they, and not the British, who were experts in the invisible world — the world of God and viruses and monetary policy. Both Boston’s formal inoculation program and paper currency were the first of their kinds. And the success of the American experiment depended on maintaining the balance between faith and science so that neither slipped into inchoate irrelevance. The stability of the experiment relied on resolving the question of authority, even as new institutions such as the media vied for power. And for the Puritans, the invisible world was but an extension of the mind of God.

The pre-enlightenment Puritans believed in social and collective “rights” — though they’d never use that world — over individual rights; they did not believe in the existence of the modern individual. They believed the smallest unit of society was the family. Yet these forerunners of Enlightenment society believed that culture, not government, should enforce the society’s values; they had shockingly few laws. They did not restrict alcohol consumption, permitted divorce as a nullification of a civil contract (marriage was not religious for them), openly tolerated pre-marital sex, and permitted private printing presses even when England and much of Europe didn’t. Unlike much of Europe, Central and South America, Puritan New England never required land reforms because the Puritans never permitted the European tradition of vast land aggregation. Land was never entitled nor entailed but rather was freely bought and sold without much government oversight. Their faith in God was so strong that no paper money or invisible viruses could shake it, so they proved to be fearless experimenters, endlessly optimistic and boldly flexible where Europe had been pessimistic and rigid.