It is a little-remembered historical fact that in the very first decade of the history of the United States, a far more terrible pandemic than our coronavirus wreaked political and social havoc on the presidency, the Congress and the people.
In the late summer of 1793, exactly 227 years ago, in Philadelphia, the temporary capital of the republic, the great plague of yellow fever was brought in by French refugees who were fleeing a violent slave uprising on the island of Santo Domingo.
In his 1949 book “Bring Out Your Dead,” historian J.H. Powell gives a vivid account of that frightening epidemic.
The death rate of the 1793 virus in Philadelphia was more than 10 percent. That death rate is over 200 times the current death rate of the coronavirus in the U.S. today.
About 50 percent of citizens of Philadelphia, including President George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and every one of the state assembly members, fled the city. Periodic outbreaks continued through to 1799. A cure or a vaccine for the virus was not found. It wasn’t till 1900 that Walter Reed proved yellow fever was caused by a pathogen spread by mosquitoes.
In 1793, freed blacks led by religious pioneers Absalom Jones and Richard Allen nursed the sick and buried the dead.
While some African-born black Americans, who had survived a bout of yellow fever in Africa, possibly as children, appeared to have a partial immunity, the theory that all black Americans had a natural immunity was soon proven wrong.
Many black nurses and volunteers died heroically, laying down their own lives in helping the sick quarantined in Philadelphia’s Bush Hill hospital.
Politicizing Competing Treatments for a Virus
There were two competing treatments for the virus and absurdly, the political parties took sides. One party, the Democratic-Republican Party, favored Dr. Benjamin Rush’s “bleeding and purging treatment,” which misattributed the terrifying disease to the local “putrid” environment contaminated by “a miasma” arising from marshes and stagnant water. (Dr. Rush was a friend and political ally to both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.)
The other party, the Federalists, backed the theory that the contagion could be directly attributed to the surge of refugees from French Haiti who had recently arrived in Philadelphia.
Dr. Jean Deveze, a French doctor who had worked in Santo Domingo, used the “French cure” or “West Indies treatment” of cold baths, stimulants and quinine not unlike today’s treatments for yellow fever.
Alexander Hamilton, who himself contracted yellow fever, was treated successfully with the “West Indies treatment” by Dr. Edward Stevens, an Edinburgh-educated physician who had been his boyhood friend in the West Indies. Hamilton wrote a letter to the College of Physicians commending Stevens’ treatment.
Bitter division along party lines (quite eerily replicated in today’s politics) prompted Dr. Rush to make the accusation: “I think it probable that if the new remedies had been introduced by any other person than a decided Democrat and a friend of Madison and Jefferson, they would have met with less opposition from Colonel Hamilton.”
Political Factionalism: No Way To Deal with a Natural Disaster
The political factionalism of the 1790s was appallingly similar to today’s toxic division between Democrats and Republicans. By 1799, congressmen had to have an armed guard in order to walk safely through the streets of Philadelphia.
It is time for all sensible Americans to formally recognize that for a complex new medical virus there was never going to be an immediate political cure at hand for Republicans or Democrats. So for God’s sake, just stop the idiotic blame game.
No, it’s not going to be President Trump’s fault if a vaccine is not found by “the end of this year.”
It’s part of a president’s job to offer hope in times of fear. And no, it’s not Joe Biden’s fault should he have second thoughts and not deliver on his rash promise to close the economy down to ameliorate some new outbreak.
Mistakes made in good faith, once discovered and acknowledged, should not be eternally punished by political opponents.
It’s time to recognize that the coronavirus pandemic is first and foremost a natural disaster.
As the medical scientists and physicians learn more about the virus and then educate the presidency, the Congress and the people, we all must show a little humility and exercise practicality, caution, open minds and good sense. The actual learning together how to control a new virus should not be misrepresented as a party-political success or failure.
As with all historic plagues, we can only learn as we go.
The Additional Threat in 1793: Terrorism and Violent Revolution
The difficulties in Philadelphia were exacerbated by what President John Adams called “the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793.” (Citizen Genêt, French envoy to the United States during the French Revolution, tried to oust President Washington and stirred up rebellion among the Federalists to raise an army to fight in France in defiance of the Neutrality Proclamation.)
Twenty years after the 1793 plague, two great Founders in their letters compared notes on the terrorism of 1793 that had compounded political and social turmoil in the new republic.
In a June 15, 1813, letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson recalled the chaotic “character of the times.”
“[T]he sensations excited in free yet firm minds, by the terrorism of the day. none can conceive who did not witness them, and they were felt by one party only. this letter exhibits their side of the medal. the Federalists no doubt have presented the other, in their private correspondences, as well as open action.”
Adams claimed a superior understanding of that terrorism in his reply to Jefferson on June 30:
“[Y]ou certainly never felt the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793, when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compell it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England. The coolest and the firmest Minds … have given their opinions to me, that nothing but the yellow Fever, which removed Dr Hutchinson and Jonathan Dickenson Sargent from this World, could have Saved the United States from a total Revolution of Government. I have no doubt you was fast asleep, in philosophical Tranquility, when ten thousand People, and perhaps many more, were parading the Streets of Philadelphia, on the Evening of my Fast Day. When even Governor Mifflin himself, thought it his Duty to order a Patrol of Horse And Foot to preserve the peace, when Markett Street was as full as Men could Stand by one another, and even before my Door; when Some of my Domesticks in Phrenzy, determined to Sacrifice their Lives in my defence.”
Once Again, the American People Must Take the Right Road
The parallels between today’s terrorism and the mob violence and lawlessness stoked by party political hatreds of the 1790s are surely striking. Adams complained in that same letter of the “Puppets” behind the political chaos who “danced upon the Wires of two Jugglers behind the Scene: and these Jugglers were Hamilton and Washington.”
Amid the political and social turmoil of a deadly virus and the triggering of a confluence of conflicts — anarchy versus the rule of law, enraged mobs rioting versus the intelligent resolution of problems, violent revolution on the streets versus rational debate in Congress — it’s important to remember that this all occurred once before in these United States of America.
Once before, the American people were faced with a critical decision to embark on anarchy, lawlessness and violent revolution or to secure the restoration of law and order and peaceful resolution of their problems.
Thank God the people chose the right road. They rejected the French Revolution’s brutality and lawlessness. It would be a tragedy if U.S. citizens take the wrong road this time around.
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