Social Distance. It’s Smallpox, Abigail Adams.

“I have attended publick (sic) worship constantly, except one day and a half ever since I have been in Town.”

Abigail Adams to John Adams, 5 August 1776

Even though her beloved John was fighting his own battle with the smallpox virus, even though John was experiencing “Pains, Achs (sic), [and] Qualms” and had an “Absolute Fear” of the “Paper” on which he was writing his wife, that “so much infected as it is,” if he sent it he feared the letter would cause Abigail and their children to die of smallpox, even knowing all of this, Abigail Adams attended worship and other public gatherings five days after her own inoculation against the virus.

Inoculation was incubation.

Abigail knew of the dangers of smallpox. Boston and Braintree, where she would worship and live was no stranger to the ravages of this virus.

John had less to fear about the “Paper” he would send to Abigail and their children since Abigail knew how to sterilize it. Abigail knew to use smoke to sterilize letters she received from John as she had done with letters received during their engagement amidst a 1764 outbreak of the virus.

As Elizabeth Fenn writes in Pox Americana,

Abigail Adams did not know about viruses or the way they worked, but like most colonists, she was clearly aware that smallpox was contagious.

Abigail Adams is not widely regarded as a stupid woman.


It’s interesting.

She obviously knew what smallpox could do in her community. Smallpox had been attacking New England since at least 1722, twenty two years before she was born. This was not a new virus. Even before she “went with the Multitude (WHAT?!) into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for Independence read and proclaimed,” she had inoculated herself and her children against this virus in order to combat its virulence (gobsmacked parenthetical exclamation added). Twelve years before this she was sterilizing letters from her beloved John who was writing her through yet another epidemic.

She. Knew. What this virus could do.

And three days later she began experiencing “many disagreeable Sensations.” And she went “out to meeting” anyways.

It’s like Florida. Or Michigan. Or North Carolina. Or any other state in the Union.

Why, across the centuries, in the face of death do we still risk our lives and the lives of those we don’t even know (see, “Multitudes” above) to gather?

What innate human drive for community leads us to risk death?

Copyright Off The Porch History, 2021 and Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana (2001)