I am sincerely concerned at the revisitation of your city by the yellow fever. I wish you were in some of the higher streets of the city. your danger must be considerable, but I hope your prudence will be the greater.
Thomas Jefferson to John Barnes, August 31, 1798
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
Sometimes, leaders can do nothing.
Philadelphia merchant John Barnes was Vice-President Jefferson’s business agent, something of a personal banker, handling his client’s accounts, both receivable and payable. Barnes survived the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, which claimed 5,000 of the city’s residents. The disease returned in 1798 and claimed another 3,600 lives. Two-thirds of the city fled. Of those who remained, 20% died.
The disease was believed to result from bad air at the lowest elevations along the water front. Chances are Barnes’ shop was in that endangered area. Jefferson acknowledged the danger his friend faced, wished he was on higher ground, and hoped Barnes’ wisdom would prevail.