The Presidt. [Washington] goes off the day after tomorrow as he had always intended. Knox [Secretary of War] then takes flight. Hamilton [Secretary of Treasury] is ill of the fever … I would really go away, because I think there is rational danger, but that I had before announced that I should not go till the beginning of October, & I do not like to exhibit the appearance of panic. Besides that I think there might serious ills proceed from there being not a single member of the administration in place.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 8, 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
Responsible leaders put themselves at risk for the cause.
Secretary of State Jefferson wrote his friend Madison that Hamilton was ill and other senior government officers were leaving Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever epidemic. (There is no mention of the whereabouts of VP John Adams and Attorney General Edmund Pendleton.) He preferred to leave himself in the face of “rational danger.”
However, he had previously made it known he would stay in Philadelphia until October. If he left, too, it might “exhibit the appearance of panic” to a city already engulfed in panic. Also, he thought it unsafe to leave the nation’s capital with “not a single member of the administration in place.” For reasons both domestic and foreign, he would leave himself at risk.