Tag Archives: Yellow fever

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.

Thomas Jefferson will act upon your invitation to speak.
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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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Keep my name out of it!

I pray you to recieve & apply the within sum of one hundred dollars to the use of those among you afflicted with the present sickness, who may be in need of it. I further request that no acknolegement may be made of it in the public papers, nor otherwise in any manner. I offer my best wishes for the reestablishment of the health of Alexandria, & to yourself my respectful salutations.
Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Snowden, September 29, 1803

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

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders don’t need credit for their good deeds.
This post clarifies an earlier one drawn from Jefferson’s Memorandum Book for 1803. He did forward the $100 he had just received to Snowden as a charitable contribution for those suffering from the yellow fever outbreak in Alexandria, VA.

Snowden, a newspaper publisher, was also involved in the local relief effort. The President stipulated his contribution was to be kept anonymous, both in “public papers” and elsewhere. Snowden published the amount of the donation but not the source. A Founders Archives footnote to this letter indicates Jefferson was outed anyway, by a grateful local minister who also mentioned the amount in writing and speculated the source, “supposed to be the President.”

The principled leader Jefferson desires to share his wisdom with your audience.
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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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If you are blessed, share with those who suffer.

Gave in charity 4.D. do 1.D.
Recd. from J. Barnes 100.D
Inclosed the same to S Snowden in charity for the sick of Alexandria
Gave in charity 4.D.
Thomas Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, 1803 (Entry for September 29)

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

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Grateful leaders are generous people.
Jefferson’s Memorandum Books were a detailed record he kept for many years, primarily of his income and expenses. This date’s entry records four charity donations. “4.D.” would be $4. “do 1.D.” would mean ditto (do.) $1. Perhaps both amounts were given at the same time? Later in the day was another $4 for charity.

In between, he recorded the receipt of $100, followed by another entry, a donation “for the sick in Alexandria.” Perhaps “Inclosed the same” meant he sent the $100 he received from Barnes to the relief effort. Footnote 54 for this entry referenced a serious yellow fever epidemic in Alexandria, VA.

The President spent August and September every year at Monticello, escaping the worst months for the yellow fever along Atlantic coast. Many were not so fortunate to be able to flee inland. He was aware of their plight.

A compassionate Thomas Jefferson awaits an invitation to share his story with your audience.
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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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Your family comes first.

I sincerely condole [grieve] with you on the sickly state of your family and hope this will find them reestablished with the approach of the cold season. as yet however we have had no frost at this place, and it is believed the yellow fever still continues in Philadelphia if not in Baltimore. we shall all be happy to see you here whenever the state of your family admits it.
Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, October 25, 1802

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

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Yellow fever wasn’t the only deathly scourge leaders faced.
Massachusetts born Lincoln (1749-1820) was Jefferson’s Attorney General. In a letter to the President eight days before, he wrote of the desperate illness that had afflicted his large family. Lincoln seemed to have remained healthy but wrote the constant attention to his family was wearing him down. They were recovering, and he hoped to be back in the capital in early November. (A footnote to Lincoln’s letter referenced a dysentery in New England in the fall of 1802 that claimed a number of lives. Children were especially vulnerable.)

Jefferson wrote the yellow fever still plagued large coastal cities. The fall frost, which marked the end of the seasonal and sometimes fatal fever, had not yet come to Washington City. He welcomed Lincoln’s return “whenever” his family recovered.

Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak to your audience.
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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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Let the market, not government, prove the worth of your medicine.

…  physicians are as far from being agreed as to what is the yellow fever, as what is it’s cure. if the disease which you have so successfully treated [is] … the yellow fever, and your remedy so certain, I shoud imagine some of the great cities in which it has prevailed & is still prevailing, would be the best scene for exhibiting proofs of your discovery … [and] would in all probability produce satisfactory recompence … I do not think an application to Congress could be useful, because they have already as far as their constitutional powers go, done what they thought best for securing to inventors the benefits of their inventions.
Thomas Jefferson to John Allen, October 25, 1802

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

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some leaders respect the role of private enterprise.
John Allen, a English physician practicing in Maine, claimed he had cured nearly 60 people of the yellow fever. He asked the President’s advice about how to roll out his discovery. Should he take it to a medical society, to a warmer climate for more research or to Congress? (There was a hint in Allen’s letter that he might be looking for financial gain.)

The President cast a little doubt on Allen’s claims but declined involvement, citing the press of his official duties. Wanting to be helpful, he suggested trying it out in “some of the great cities” still afflicted, those along the Atlantic coast.

Congress, limited by the Constitution, could be of no help beyond what they’d already done, allowing “inventors the benefits of their inventions.”

Mr. Jefferson desires to be helpful to your audience, too.
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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.

Mr. Jefferson is right on most things. Your audience will agree.
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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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This virus is messing with business!

In consequence of your friendly letter of May 23. I wrote you on the 8th. of June that I should immediately order 10. hhds [hogheads, large wooden barrels holding 10,000 pounds] of tobo. [tobacco] from Richmond to New York, consigned to you … [I write} to enquire whether they got safe to hand and are sold or likely to be so, & what prospect there would be of selling our whole crop of the same quality? I am aware that the yellow fever may have disturbed the operations of commerce so far as to have prevented the sale. I only wish to know the fact.
Thomas Jefferson to Henry Remsen, October 14, 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
Extenuating circumstances leave even leaders in the dark.
Four months earlier, the Vice-President  directed his agent in Richmond, VA, to ship a quantity of tobacco to New York for Remsen to sell. Jefferson knew it had been shipped but didn’t know if it arrived or had been sold. (The value would have been from $7,000-9,000 in his time.) He asked Remsen for an update.

August and September were always the worst months for the yellow fever in coastal America. Jefferson acknowledged the illness might have delayed the shipping or sale. He just wanted to know where he stood.

Remsen replied on October 21, a letter which hasn’t been found. Jefferson wrote again in mid-January, still uncertain about the fate of his crop. Tobacco was one of only two crops farmers could raise and sell for cash. The other was wheat.

Mr. Jefferson will not be uncertain when he inspires your audience!
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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.

Bring Mr. Jefferson’s wisdom and foresight to your audience.
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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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Five years later, the disease returns in spades!

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.

Mr. Jefferson’s wisdom will prevail for your audience.
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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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It’s a crap shoot!

Still I have not learnt how a stranger is to know into what houses he may venture, as not having had the disease at all. In fact the members have ventured into both taverns and lodging houses, where they have had it. Francis’s hotel near the Indian Queen has never had it, therefore you may safely land there. Mrs. Trist intends to take a small house and a few of her acquaintances: but I believe she has not got a house yet. In the one she formerly occupied, a person died of the fever: but Mr. Giles and Mr. Venable are there, and Stockdon has lived in the very room where the person died for a considerable time.
Thomas Jefferson to John F. Mercer, December 7, 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
Sometimes,  leaders have no answers, only information.
The Virginia-born Mercer (1759-1821) was now a Maryland lawyer and member of Congress. He had asked the Secretary of State about the status of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, where Congress had been called to reconvene. He also asked about the health risk of staying at certain inns or taverns.

Jefferson knew of no way a visitor might learn what Mercer asked. He reported other members of Congress were staying in both “taverns and lodging places.” He thought Francis’ hotel should be safe as none of their boarders had had the disease. A friend, “Mrs. Trist,” was moving from a boarding house where the disease had been, but two other acquaintances were there now, one living in the same room where another had died.

Mr. Jefferson will bring a healthy perspective to your audience!
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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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