Huh? What does the flu have to do with the US Constitution? Here’s what.
The 2017-2018 influenza season shaped up to be the worst on record since 1918, the infamous year when 20 to 50 million victims died of this highly infectious disease worldwide. By mid-season January 2018, the most common type, A(H3), was already widespread throughout forty-nine states and Puerto Rico. Doctor visits were three times higher than normal. And, the proportion of deaths continued to increase sharply. Warnings about the flu’s spread and severity and advice on how to try to avoid it appeared frequently in the media.
Fortunately, the flu vaccine reduced the chance of catching the virus and eased symptoms of those who did come down with it, even though the vaccine had been engineered for a different strain. But, what if the disease threatened to fell millions of Americans, overrunning hospitals, closing schools and businesses, and causing panic? Could the government contain its reach by forcibly quarantining people? After all, that’s what some governors did in 2014 when they feared Ebola might run rampant here. Or, might the president or the Federal Aviation Authority halt flights to Hawaii, Alaska or Puerto Rico to at least contain it within the contiguous forty-eight states?
Unfortunately, our Constitution is vague about the situations under which the government can detain people during such a state of emergency. Normally, habeas corpus applies. This provision says that people have the right to be released from detention if the government can’t supply a reason to keep them locked up.
In 1787, when our Constitution was being drafted, the Framers debated whether there should be any exceptions to this right. Were there any grounds, they wondered, for keeping people confined for no legal reason and with no hope for release? They decided that “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” But, a pandemic of bird flu from China, say, never occurred to the Framers. Would that be considered an invasion?
More recently, Congress gave the president the power to declare certain diseases “quarantinable” and to order the “apprehension…of individuals…for the purpose of preventing the introduction, transmission, or spread of such communicable diseases.” This is one of the government’s “police powers.” There are genuine questions, however, about what counts as such a disease and at what point in its spread the authorities can intervene. These are serious issues to consider—before an epidemic arrives.
Soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas lie ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward. It was the most famous and lethal flu outbreak ever to strike the United States, lasting from 1918 to 1919. It is not known exactly how many it killed, but estimates range from 50 to 100 million people worldwide.
-Courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP (Washington, D.C.)
US citizens initiated certain actions of their own during the Spanish flu pandemic. Here a Seattle trolley conductor refuses admission to anyone not wearing a mask.
The World Health Organization remains on alert for a future pandemic characterized by sustained transmission in the general population.
Left: An influenza virus magnified about 100,000 times. Influenza spreads around the world in a yearly outbreak, resulting in about three to five million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. -Wikimedia Commons Right: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season. -Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution. Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced―then they offer possible solutions.
"A fascinating, thoughtful, and provocative look at what in the Constitution keeps the United States from being “a more perfect union.” " Kirkus Reviews - Best Middle Grade Nonfiction of 2017
MLA 8 Citation
Levinson, Cynthia. "Flu and the Constitution." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 14 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Explainer General
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and looked out at a sea of faces reaching as far as the eye could see. More than 200,000 people had gathered there to take part in one of the largest protest rallies in United States history: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Standing there that day, Dr. King delivered a stirring speech: his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a speech that has been voted the best political speech given in the United States during the 20th century, according to a group of 137 experts on speechmaking who were asked to pick the century’s 100 top speeches.
In this speech, Dr. King called for an end to segregation and discrimination, which had led to so many people being treated unfairly just because of the color of their skin. He spoke of his dream that one day the nation would live up to the idea set forth in its Declaration of Independence—that “all men are created equal.” He spoke also of his dream that one day black children and white children would treat each other as sisters and brothers.
Today, visitors to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington can stand on the very spot where Dr. King stood more than fifty years ago to deliver his famous speech. The location is marked by these words that have been chiseled into a stone landing about eighteen steps down from the top:
I HAVE A DREAM
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON
FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM
AUGUST 28, 1963
Carving these words into the stone step came about because of a tourist from Kentucky who visited the Lincoln Memorial in 1997 and wondered why there wasn’t a sign to let people know where Dr. King had stood. This visitor wrote to his representative in Congress, who agreed that marking the spot was a good idea and had Congress passed a law to allow that to happen. To figure out exactly where Dr. King stood, officials at the National Park Service, which manages the Lincoln Memorial, carefully studied photos and video that had been taken during the speech. Then, in 2003, they arranged for a local stone cutter to carve the words into the step where they decided Dr. King had stood.
You have to look closely to find those words in the stone. They’re not highlighted in a bright color. But when you find them, you can stand up on that step and look out as Dr. King did, and try to imagine how he must have felt as he shared his hopes and dreams for his country with that huge crowd..
Click here to read Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”
Click here for article Sources.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells of another civil rights milestone that took place on August 28, 1963—the day Dr. King gave his famous speech. That same day, about forty miles away from the Lincoln Memorial, a once-segregated amusement park at last dropped segregation, and a very young girl took a very special ride on a merry-go-round.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Standing with Doctor King." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 12
01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/