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Category Archives: Protecting ourselves

Don’t lay blame. Instead, decide and act!

on the question Whether the Yellow fever is infectious [contagious], or endemic [confined to a certain place], the Medical faculty is divided into parties, and it certainly is not the office of the public functionaries to denounce either party as the Doctr. [Benjamin Rush] proposes. yet, so far as they are called on to act, they must form for themselves an opinion to act on.
Thomas Jefferson to John Page, August 16, 1804

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leaders see no value in placing blame.
Virginia’s Governor Page (1743-1808), a life-long friend, was facing the seasonal return of the deadly yellow fever in the state’s coastal region. Jefferson enclosed a letter from a mutual friend, Dr. Rush, expressing his (Rush’s) opinion on the disease and criticism of those who disagreed.

Jefferson would have none of it. Laying blame would serve no purpose, especially when the medical experts themselves were divided about the cause of the disease. Facing the unknown, “public functionaries” (government and public health leaders) had the responsibility to form the best opinion possible from conflicting information and act on it.

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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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What good might come from this evil epidemic?

I … congratulate you on the healthiness of your city [Philadelphia]. still Baltimore, Norfolk & Providence admonish us that we are not clear of our new scourge. when great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us: and Providence has in fact so established the order of things as that most evils are the means of producing some good. the yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation; & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. true, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others with more health virtue & freedom would be my choice.
Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the yellow fever that ravaged coastal cities in the nation’s earliest years.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Visionary leaders expect good to arise from the bad.
The Vice-President was encouraged that his friend’s home town, devastated in previous years by yellow fever, had come through the dangerous months in good shape. The scourge was still a danger, as other cities were still menaced.

Jefferson was generally an optimist. When evil came, he looked for what good might result, believing  Providence generally arranged things in that way.

He believed one positive result would be less interest in large cities. He had firsthand experience, living in Paris for five years, visiting London, and serving over the years in both New York and Philadelphia. He thought cities threatened the health, morals and liberties of their inhabitants. He gave cities credit for nourishing the “elegant arts” but would sacrifice some of that for “more health virtue & freedom.”

The continued growth of cities proved Jefferson’s expectations wrong.

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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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How do we respond to a troubling mystery?

The origin of the yellow fever being a vexata questio [troubling and unsolved] among the medical gentlemen, it is not for the unlearned to form an opinion on it. I believe it will be found that the close & solid method of building up cities in the cloudy climates of Europe must not be pursued under our clear sky. the quantity of our sunshine imposes a different law on us. all towns in America should be laid off on the plan of the chequer board, the white squares remaining unbuilt & in trees. every house would then front a square of trees: and the accidents of fire as well as disease better guarded against.
Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 12, 1799

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the yellow fever that ravaged coastal cities in the nation’s earliest years.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders anticipate and plan for unsolvable problems.

Writing to Dr. Rush in Philadelphia about recurrent yellow fever outbreaks in his city every late summer, Vice-President Jefferson made these observations:
1. If doctors don’t know the cause, uneducated people surely shouldn’t “form an opinion.”
2. Let America not adopt the European model of crowded cities.
3. America’s bountiful sunshine demands a lifestyle different from Europeans.
4. Cities should be developed on a checkerboard plan, with every other square undeveloped and covered with trees.
5. The twin dangers of disease and fire would both be “better guarded against.”

Note that Jefferson was being proactive, planning now for what might protect us later, rather than waiting until calamity struck and then reacting to it.

In a recent post titled “Social distancing, Thomas Jefferson style,” he proposed the same development plan for New Orleans in 1805.

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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.

 

 

 

 

 

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In this case, size DOES matter. Part 5

I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some, from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger it’s union. but who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? the larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions. and in any view, is it not better that the opposite bank of the Missisipi should be settled by our own brethren & children than by strangers of another family? with which should we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?
Thomas Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Far-sighted leaders see bright spots in the distance!
There was opposition from political opponents, the Federalists, to the President’s purchase of Louisiana in 1803, over its cost and constitutionality. Others were honestly concerned (“a candid apprehension”) that doubling the country’s size might destabilize it. Jefferson thought just the opposite, that a larger nation would be more stable, less vulnerable to parochial interests, what he called “local passions.”
Regardless, there was other good reasons for the enlargement. The Mississippi River was now entirely within U.S. jurisdiction, so farmers could ship their goods to market without interference. In addition, those on the western bank of that river would not be “strangers of another family,” the French, Spanish, English or Russian, for all had designs on that vast territory. No, those people would now be fellow citizens, “our own brethren and children.”

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Green space urban design will lessen disease.

…the yellow fever …is generated only in low close, and ill-cleansed parts of a town, I have supposed it practicable to prevent it’s generation by building our cities on a more open plan. take for instance the chequer board for a plan. let the black squares only be building squares, and the white ones be left open, in turf & trees. every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, & every house will front an open square. the atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country, insusceptible of the miasmata which produce yellow fever. I have accordingly proposed that the enlargements of the city of New Orleans … shall be on this plan.
To Constantin François Chasseboeuf Volney, February 8, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders promote public health.
Thomas Jefferson met the French philosopher Volney (1757-1820) during his service in France. More than half of this lengthy, wide-ranging letter dealt with the ravages of yellow fever in coastal America. Jefferson fled swampy Washington for Monticello every August and September, when the disease was prominent.

Jefferson presumed the disease flourished because of crowded, unhealthy living conditions in large cities, all in the Atlantic tidewater region. To combat this, he proposed a plan for future urban expansion that would leave half of every development in green space. Using the example of a checkerboard, he suggested all squares of one color for homes, all squares of the other color to be left natural. Every house on the block would front on open space.

It would be long after Jefferson’s death before the cause of yellow fever was discovered. It wasn’t the crowded swampy atmosphere along the coast, but the mosquitoes that thrived in that environment.

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THAT will not work. THIS will.

If we cannot hinder vessels from entering our harbours, we should turn our attention to the putting it out of their power to lie, or come to, before a town to injure it. two means of doing this may be adopted in aid of each other. 1. heavy cannon on travelling carriages, which may be moved to any point on the bank or beach most convenient for dislodging the vessel …
2. heavy cannon on floating batteries or boats, which may be so stationed as to prevent a vessel entering the harbor, or force her after entering to depart.
Thomas Jefferson to Joseph H. Nicholson, January 29, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
How does a leader get a better result for far less money?
America’s 15 harbor cities were relatively defenseless against invading ships. Building forts, the conventional wisdom, would cost $50 million plus the cost of 12,000 soldiers to staff them in peacetime, 50,000 during war. Even so, there was general consensus the plan would not work. The fortifications might discourage or delay enemy ships but could not prevent them from entering our harbors.

Instead, the President proposed to the Maryland Congressman a system of moveable heavy canons, some on carriages, some on barges or boats. These would not keep ships out of the harbors but would prevent them from getting close to the cities within those harbors.

Fifteen U.S. harbors would require 240 gunboats, costing $1 million, and take 10 years to fully deploy. In peacetime, most could be kept in dry dock at minimal expense. Some would be deployed but lightly manned and near ready for action for $2,000/year each. A few would be fully manned and ready for defense for $8,000/year.

Far better, Thomas Jefferson proposed, to have an economical system that would work than an impressive and expensive system that would not.

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I am happy to start with just half a loaf. (2 of 7)

this [securing our liberty] requires two grades of education. first some institution where science in all it’s branches is taught, and in the highest degree to which the human mind has carried it … secondly such a degree of learning given to every member of the society as will enable him to read, to judge & to vote understandingly on what is passing. this would be the object of township schools. I understand from your letter that the first of these only is under present contemplation. let us recieve with contentment what the legislature is now ready to give. the other branch will be incorporated into the system at some more favorable moment.
Thomas Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell, January 5, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Practical leaders take what they can get gratefully and work for more later.
Responding to Tazewell’s inquiry about a university, Thomas Jefferson replied that a university alone wasn’t enough. It needed to be coupled with general education for all. Higher education in all the sciences was essential for preparing the gifted for leadership. General education was necessary, too, enabling all men “to read, to judge & to vote understandingly.”

Jefferson accepted willingly that the legislature was considering only higher education. It was an essential step in the right direction. He would welcome the addition of general education at a later time.

About 30 years before, Jefferson authored a “Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge” in Virginia. It proposed three years of free public education for all boys and girls, two additional levels of advanced, fee-based schooling, and a scholarship program for the brightest but poorest students. Of course, slave children were not considered, but his proposal was radical in a time when the only ones privileged to have any advanced education were those born male, white and to parents with the means to pay for it privately. His proposals were never completely adopted, but he lobbied for the cause for the remaining 50 years of his life.

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Finally! Our liberty will be (partially) secured! (1 of 7)

Your favor of December [24. never] came to my hands till last night. it’s importance induces me to hasten the answer. no one can be more rejoiced at the information that the legislature of Virginia are likely at length to institute an University on a liberal plan. convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession, unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree.
Thomas Jefferson to Littleton W. Tazewell, January 5, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders understand the connection between education and freedom.
Tazewell (1774-1860), 31 years younger than Thomas Jefferson, was a Virginia lawyer, landowner and politician. He wrote that the Virginia legislature might be willing to consider some form of higher education in the state and wanted the President’s thoughts on “one great seminary of learning.”

Few things turned Jefferson’s crank in a good way more than the subject of education. He responded at length the very next day. Excerpts from his lengthy reply will comprise seven posts.

Only educated citizens who understood their liberty belonged to them as a natural right and not a privilege granted by their leaders would be able to keep that liberty secure. Otherwise, the freedom they now enjoyed would be a “short-lived possession.” A university would be an essential part of that education.

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THIS is the experiment that IS America!

we are going fairly through the experiment whether freedom of discussion, unaided by coercion, is not sufficient for the propagation & protection of truth, and for the maintenance of an administration pure and upright in it’s actions and views.
To Volney, April 20, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
It is the rare leader who freely limits the scope of his leadership.
Volney (1757-1820) was a French historian and political philosopher. He and Jefferson were friends and of one mind on many social, political and religious issues. Jefferson even translated most of one of Volney’s books, Ruins of Empires, into English.

In this long letter, Jefferson wrote of his own philosophy, the accomplishments of his new administration and the fury of his political foes. He summed up much of the letter in this excerpt about the American experiment: Can open, free, unforced, rational discussion be all that is required to promote and protect the truth and to maintain a government devoted to that truth?

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Office of the Lieutenant Governor, State of Missouri
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BEFORE you get sick …

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments & his thanks to Doctr Ricketson for his treatise on the means of preserving health & the pamphlets he has been so kind as to send him. he shall read the former especially with particular pleasure, having much more confidence in the means of preserving than of restoring health.
To Shadrach Ricketson, June 21, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Health conscious leaders value prevention ahead of treatment.
Ricketson (1768-1837) was a prominent New York Quaker and physician. In 1806, he published a book, “Means of Preserving Health and Preventing Diseases … This was not so much a book on how to treat and eliminate or reduce disease-related problems as much as it was a book on how to live a long and health[y] life.”

Below the book title on the cover were these words, “Founded principally on an attention to air and climate, drink, food, sleep, exercise, clothing, passions of the mind, and retentions and excretions … Designed not merely for physicians but for the information of others …” (Quoted sections are credited to this site.)

Empirical or evidence-based medicine had a strong appeal to Jefferson. It is what he practiced for himself, his family and his servants. While he engaged a trusted doctor when his larger mountain-top family was threatened, he had great faith in the human body’s recuperative powers if just left alone. Most doctors lacked any real understanding of the human body and were inclined toward experimentation. Jefferson thought doing nothing was better than doing something uninformed.

He was also a great supporter of what we would call “wellness,” with a focus on cleanliness, diet, exercise and rest. Ricketson’s work was right up his alley!

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