Jacobson v. United States

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In Jacobson v. United States, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts state law mandating that everyone, adults and children, receive the smallpox vaccine. The law provided for a medical exemption for children, and the Court interpreted the law to allow for medical exemptions for adults also. The issue of religious objection to vaccination was not raised and not part of this case. This decision remains the leading precedent for laws requiring vaccination.

This decision was cited in the 5-4 ruling that upheld the federal ban on partial-birth abortion:[1]

"The question becomes whether the Act can stand when this medical uncertainty persists. The Court's precedents instruct that the Act can survive this facial attack. The Court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty. See ... Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 30-31, 25 S. Ct. 358, 49 L. Ed. 643 (1905) ...."

This also decision is known more generally for declaring that:

Although that Preamble indicates the general purposes for which the people ordained and established the Constitution, it has never been regarded as the source of any substantive power conferred on the Government of the United States or on any of its Departments. Such powers embrace only those expressly granted in the body of the Constitution and such as may be implied from those so granted. Although, therefore, one of the declared objects of the Constitution was to secure the blessings of liberty to all under the sovereign jurisdiction and authority of the United States, no power can be exerted to that end by the United States unless, apart from the Preamble, it be found in some express delegation of power or in some power to be properly implied therefrom. 1 Story's Const. § 462.

Justice John Harlan I wrote the decision, which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes joined and later used in the notorious Buck v. Bell decision upholding mandatory sterilization of low-IQ women by the state of Virginia.

Justices David Brewer and Rufus Peckham dissented in Jacobson.


  1. Gonzales v. Carhart, 127 S. Ct. 1610, 1636 (2007).