Tag Archives: Social distancing
The President [Washington] sets out the day after tomorrow for Mount Vernon, and will be back about the last of the month. Within 4 or 5. days or a week after his return I can set out. The yellow fever, of which I wrote Mr. Randolph [Martha’s husband] last week still encreases. The last week about twice as many have died as did the week before. I imagine there are between 3. and 400. persons ill of it. I propose after the President’s departure to remove my office into the country so as to have no further occasion to go into the town.
Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 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
Leaders can still lead from a (short) distance away.
Jefferson reported to his daughter that the epidemic was getting worse.
An earlier post referenced Jefferson’s decision to remain in the nation’s capital, because all the other officers were leaving to escape the epidemic. President Washington was about to depart and would return at the end of September, when the yellow fever usually abated.
After the President returned, Jefferson would come home to Monticello. In the meantime, he would move his office out of the city to some country house, close enough to carry out his official duties but be socially-distanced from the disease.
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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.
…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
Visionary leaders plan with public health in mind.
This excerpt is a duplicate, from September 10, 2019, but with a twist, in light of the coronavirus.
Jefferson addressed the scourge of yellow fever, which ravaged coastal and tidewater cities in August and September each year. (In 1793, it killed 5,000 in Philadelphia, a city of 45-50,000.) He believed the cause was “miasma,” an unhealthy vapor arising in crowded, dirty cities, suffering from a shortage of fresh air.
Since New Orleans, also on the tidewater, had recently been added to the U.S., he proposed future expansions of that city be made on a checkerboard plan. All development would be on squares of one color only. All squares of the other color were to be left open. Thus, every populated block would have blocks of green space on all four sides. This would provide for less disease through social distancing, as a matter of urban design.
It would be nearly a century before the cause of yellow fever was discovered, not miasma but mosquitoes that thrived in the the swampy, tidewater environment.