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.
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