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Why did Congress pass the federal quarantine legislation?

February 25th

justice13n-3-webFebruary 25, 1799 — Congress passed the first federal quarantine legislation today. Under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act, it regulated the entry and spread of communicable diseases into and among the US. It also shifted the power to protect against external threats of communicable diseases from state and local authorities to federal authorities.

The Quarantine was a city’s first line of defense against immigrant-borne infectious diseases like smallpox, cholera, typhus and yellow fever.

While the connection between seafaring and the spread of illness has been recognized since the Venetians imposed the first known quarantine in the early 14th century, towns of the original American colonies began to impose quarantines as early as 1647, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first quarantine restriction in colonial America. By 1662, the first land-based quarantine in the future United States was instituted in the town of East Hampton, Long Island.

Colonial governments gradually instituted their own measures for preventing the introduction of disease from without. At the turn of the 18th century, the predominant concern was about diseases (primarily smallpox and yellow fever) coming in by sea from foreign ports, rather than domestic sources.

A law enacted by Pennsylvania in 1700 is typical of the quarantine provisions of this time, prohibiting “sickly vessels coming into the government.” Though most colonies enacted quarantine laws, there was no clear consensus as to which level of government would have authority over this task; cities and other localities enacted quarantine statutes as well.

Words of Wisdom

[M]ake and enforce such regulations as in his judgment are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession.

— Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act, 1799, in which Congress endowed the Surgeon General with new responsibility and power.

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