Commentary / History

Jefferson and the Public Benefits of Epidemics

By Geoff Smock

(The following excellent article, published by the Journal of the American Revolution on May 14, should shock most Americans. Here we have the storied champion of individual liberty, Thomas Jefferson, callously expressing his approval of mass death, because he believes it serves the “greater good” of reducing the growth of cities. One can imagine that Jefferson would have no problem with those today, like Jeremy Warner of the London Daily Telegraph, who on March 3 opined that “COVID-19 might even provide mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”

Jefferson’s views on the value of human life cohere with his desire to prevent the United States from becoming an agro-industrial powerhouse, and his failure to act against slavery. What a contrast with the view of Alexander Hamilton, who worked to improve the water system of New York City in the face of the 1798 yellow fever epidemic! Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton knew that industrial development was essential to improving the living standards, and thus the actual freedom, of the American population. Find out more about Hamilton’s views here. Graphics and captions have been added by me. — Nancy Spannaus)

An epidemic that violently attacks public health—that sickens and takes lives; that cripples our economy; that forces us into our homes; that turns cities into ghost towns—may be unprecedented to the present generation of Americans, but was as commonplace to the Revolutionary generation as was revolution itself. The War of Independence, Shays’ Rebellion, the French Revolution, the “revolution of 1800,” Yellow Fever outbreaks—be it socio-political or pathogenic disruption, that cohort had seen it all.[1]

To Thomas Jefferson, it was all much of the same. Both classes of phenomena—epidemics and revolutions—fell within the same paradigm: they sprung up suddenly, spread rapidly, sowed mass disruption, and look lives.

Jefferson and the Public Benefits of Epidemics

Ravages of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

They also served a larger, noble purpose.

“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.”[2] With such a mindset—a sort of calloused optimism—he was able to look at the mass carnage of the epidemiological and political upheavals of his time philosophically.

When many of the elites in his Revolutionary milieu saw their experiment in liberty drowning in the bloodshed of Shays’ Rebellion, Jefferson saw the opposite.[3] Washington was “mortified beyond expression” by the insurrection, the actions of a few malefactors acting as “a scourge on the major part of our fellow citizens.”[4]

To Jefferson, Daniel Shays’ rebels weren’t villains threatening to undo the Revolution of ’76, but heroes securing it. No country, he declared, “can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance” when those liberties are threatened. “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”[5]

Jefferson and the Public Benefits of Epidemics

Louis XVI on the way to the guillotine, just one of thousands to die. Jefferson shed crocodile tears for the bloodshed that killed en masse.

The Sage of Monticello maintained his equanimity in the face of exponentially greater bloodshed during the French Revolution. Guilty and innocent alike had met their end underneath the blade of the guillotine, and he deplored their deaths “as much as anybody.” The immense loss of life was for a greater good though, it being “necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree” to achieve the larger endgame of French liberty. He and everyone else who were horrified at the bloodletting could console themselves that the future would “rescue and embalm” the dead’s “memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives.”[6]

Yellow Fever outbreaks, both in Philadelphia in 1793 and then in other American cities in 1800, were no different.[7] The pestilence was indeed a “scourge,” but would ultimately prove a great benefit by discouraging “the growth of great cities in our nation, & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”[8]

Not only did population density enable the transmission of biological pathogens, but worse, cultural and political ones. Urban centers were the domiciles of stockjobbers, usurers, dependent mobs, and thus corruption. This was antithetical to the agrarian republic of free, independent yeomen farmers Jefferson envisioned, and it would simply be impossible for Americans to preserve the fruits of their Revolution were they “to get piled upon one another in large cities.”[9] A Europe full of over-populated urban centers was proof of this.

The Philadelphia Waterworks, built in the early 19th century, are an example of how cities create health and beauty for human beings.

As with Shays’ Rebellion and the Reign of Terror in France, the lives lost at the malignant hand of the Yellow Fever were sacrifices, albeit involuntary ones, in the cause of deurbanization and, in turn, human freedom. Political revolution “now and then” preserved a “precious degree of liberty” by serving as a caution to would-be despots.[10] By discouraging the growth of cities, viral epidemics advanced the cause of liberty in like manner.[11] The indiscriminate death of thousands was simply a harrowing but ultimately worthwhile price to pay.

At least it was in the mind of Thomas Jefferson.

[1] In Jefferson’s view, his election as president in 1800 was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” “To Judge Spencer Roane; Sept. 6, 1819,” in Jean M. Yarbrough, ed., The Essential Jefferson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 250.

[2] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush; Monticello, Sep. 23, 1800,” in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1080.

[3] For a succinct account of Shays’ Rebellion and its effect on American political elites, see Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 100-104.

[4] “To Henry Lee; Mount Vernon 31st October 1786,” in John Rhodehamel, ed., Washington: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 608.

[5] “To William Smith: Paris, Nov. 13, 1787,” Peterson, ed., Writings, 911.

[6] “To William Short; Philadelphia, Jan. 3, 1793,” ibid., 1004.

[7] For an exemplary summation of the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793, see Brian Patrick O’Malley, “The Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1793: Nine Observations and Lessons.” Journal of the American Revolution, March 26, 2020, allthingsliberty.com/2020/03/the-yellow-fever-outbreak-of-1793-nine-observations-and-lessons/. For a larger historical timeline of Yellow Fever occurrences in the United States, see Susan Brink, “Yellow Fever Timeline: The History of a Long Misunderstood Disease.” NPR, August 28, 2016, www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/08/28/491471697/yellow-fever-timeline-the-history-of-a-long-misunderstood-disease.

[8] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush; Monticello, Sep. 23, 1800,” Peterson, ed., Writings, 1081.

[9] “From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 20 December 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0454.

[10] “To James Madison; Paris, Jan. 30, 1787,” Peterson, ed., Writings, 882.

[11] Obviously Yellow Fever outbreaks did not stop the process of urbanization in America, but Jefferson wasn’t necessarily wrong that epidemics encouraged many to leave cities temporarily and some permanently—whether it be because of Yellow Fever in the late-eighteenth century or Covid-19 in the early-twenty first. See Anne Kadet, “Escape from New York City,” The Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/escape-from-new-york-city-11587477601.

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