[As I draft this series in late March, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate the United States and the world. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of prior epidemics, leading up to a weekend post that I’ll wait to draft until we know more about where things stand in early May.]
On the Early Republic outbreak that very nearly changed everything, and why it didn’t.
Yellow fever has been a recurring threat to American communities and populations (along with many places, in the Western Hemisphere and around the world), and one that has most frequently targeted the South and the Gulf Coast. From the numerous 19th and early 20th century outbreaks in New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley; to an 1858 outbreak that killed more than 300 members of a single Charleston, South Carolina, church; to the 1878 Memphis outbreak that forced a steamship, the John D. Porter, to travel up and down the Mississippi for two months, a floating quarantine unable to unload its passengers for fear of infection; much of the region’s history has been shaped by the disease’s presence and effects. Yet Northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia experienced their share of yellow fever outbreaks as well—and it was a late 18th century Philly epidemic that came close to forever altering American history.
Few Americans remember that it was Philadelphia which served as the nation’s capital for most of its first post-Revolutionary years, including the majority of George Washington’s time as president. Washington was inaugurated in New York City but served most of his first term (1789-1793) and all of his second (1793-1797) in Philadelphia; John Adams (president from 1797 to 1801) would likewise lead from Philadelphia, as Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration was the first in the newly completed Washington, DC. And so Washington, his administration, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the whole of the young federal government were located in Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak, the worst in the city and one of the most devastating in American history. The summertime epidemic claimed the lives of more than 5000 Philadelphians, with more than 100 dying each day at its height; Washington and the rest of the government managed to flee the city safely, but given the potency and rapidity with which infection spread (local merchant Samuel Breck noted that many of those affected were “in health one day and buried the next”), it’s very easy to imagine Washington stricken by the illness. What that might have meant for the nascent republic is an interesting and provocative question to say the least.
We don’t and can’t know what that alternate history might have comprised, but we can say with far more certainty how and why the city beat back the epidemic. That story would have to start with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the physician and founding father (he signed the Declaration of Independence and participated in the Constitutional ratification debates, among other contributions) who refused to leave the city and spearheaded its efforts to contain and combat the outbreak (Rush did contract the disease in October but fortunately survived; his methods for fighting the disease were and remain controversial, but became the norm for many decades thereafter). But equally important to the city’s efforts was its substantial free African American population—Rush believed that the African American community were immune to the epidemic, and asked its members to serve as nurses and in other medical and support roles; while he was almost certainly wrong in his assumptions, many nonetheless answered his call and performed vital duties that the fellow citizens were unable or unwilling to execute. In a subsequent memoir, community leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wrote that they felt, in response to Rush’s call, “a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.” Alternate histories can be compelling, but none holds a candle to this actual, inspiring American history.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other thoughts on this epidemic or any prior ones?
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