I have duly recieved your favor of the 6th. and immediately wrote to Mr. Serjeant, your lawyer. I inclose you his answer, by which you will perceive that the fatal fever of this place has not been without it’s effect on you also. I had intended to go to Monticello a fortnight hence; but the suspension of all business by the malady, renders it more convenient that I should be absent now. I think therefore to set out in one, two, or three days.
Thomas Jefferson to James Currie, September 15, 1793
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, which killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
There is no point in leading if there’s nothing to do.
Currie (1756-1805) was a Scottish physician who spent a few years in Virginia in the early 1770s. An ardent loyalist, he returned to Great Britain when America declared independence. Jefferson’s correspondence to and from Currie’s lawyer, Jonathan Sergeant, has not been found but appears to involve a long-pending legal matter. Something in Sergeant’s reply indicated that the yellow fever ravaging the east coast also affected Currie’s case.
Jefferson had written just days before of his plans to remain near the nation’s capital throughout the month, because President Washington and practically all of his cabinet had departed inland. He thought at least one officer should remain for the safety of the nation. Now, he had changed his mind.
The epidemic had brought a halt to everything except illness and death. Since there was no protective role to play, there was no point in his remaining. He planned to leave within the next three days.
The lawyer Sergeant would succumb to the yellow fever in three weeks.