By Flora Fraser (Guest Contributor)
I’m not normally one to pursue the “What if’s” of counterfactual history. Recently, however, I’ve been indulging wild thoughts about the yellow fever epidemic that afflicted Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, at the outset of Washington’s second term of office. I blame Designated Survivor on Netflix, which I’ve been watching. A Secretary of Housing is sworn in as President, after he escapes a bomb at the Capitol that kills the rest of the government. What if, in 1793, the deadly epidemic had killed off Washington and all his Cabinet, bar none? A Netflix series for someone other than me to make about President Hamilton or Knox or Randolph … Ultimately, I’m always more interested in fact than fiction.
The trials of a young republic
In 1793 Philadelphia was the seat of government, and the republic, still young. Anti-federalists condemned the President’s insistence on American neutrality, after France declared war on Britain. They criticized the stately receptions that George and Martha Washington hosted each week at their Market Street home as ‘monarchical’. The President dwelt, in conversation with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, on ‘the extreme wretchedness of his existence’.
And then, in July and August, yellow fever developed in the city. No one then understood the role of mosquitoes in transmitting the virus. A drought had succeeded heavy spring rains and pockets of standing water abounded where these insects thrived. Washington’s deficiencies on the national and international stage were forgotten in the urgent need to address the chaotic situation. By early September, despite the best efforts of doctors, hundreds were dying.
Physician Benjamin Rush recorded his symptoms. The sweats, he recorded, were ‘so offensive as to oblige me to draw the bedclothes close to my neck, to defend myself from their smell.’ He survived, as did Alexander Hamilton, Treasury Secretary, and his wife, Betsy. Countless others, including numerous Government clerks and the speaker of the Pennsylvania senate, perished. Henry Knox, Secretary for War, recorded in mid-September : ‘the great seat of it [the epidemic] at present seems to be from 2nd to 3rd street, and thence to Walnut Street. Water Street, however, continues sickly.’ By the end of October over four thousand, in a city with a population of 50,000, had died.
The president’s life in danger
Those who could, fled the city early on. The home the Washingtons occupied on Market Street was dangerously close to the streets that Knox named. Indeed, the President’s valet there was to number among the dead. Either or both of the Washingtons might so easily have succumbed to the fever. Martha would not leave for their Virginia home without her husband. On September 9 he was persuaded to go, leaving Knox in charge of a skeleton government. At Mount Vernon a sombre President received reports of the mounting death toll.
Frosts, in late October, rather than medical intervention, brought the epidemic to a halt. Congress, which had prepared to assemble elsewhere in case of need, reconvened in Philadelphia. Slowly life resumed its normal pattern, and the President was soon under attack again from his critics. But everywhere there were reminders of the recent tumultuous months. Martha Washington wrote, on her return to the city, that almost every family had lost some of their friends: ‘black [for mourning] seems to be the general dress of the city.’
The sources of all quotations are to be found in the relevant pages of my book, The Washingtons.
Flora Fraser is author of Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton; The Unruly Queen: The Life of Queen Caroline; Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III; and Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire. The Washingtons won the George Washington Book Prize. She is chair of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography, established in 2003 in affectionate memory of her biographer grandmother. She lives in London.