In April of 1793, George Washington was just beginning his second term as President when Edmond-Charles Genet arrived in Charleston as the new French Ambassador. “Citizen Genet” came bearing the news that King Louis XVI had been executed and France had declared war on Great Britain. His arrival was the beginning of a tempest that would threaten the very foundation of the young nation that was still searching to find its identity.
Genet was a charismatic, power-hungry, cunning, and narcissistic man who completely ignored diplomatic protocol and courtesy. While George Washington was determined to keep the United States out of the French conflict, the impetuous Frenchman ignored the President and made direct appeals to the American people. He was issuing demands to American ships to make war against British shipping. He was espousing conspiracy theories designed to persuade the public to strong-arm President Washington to change policy.
He knew how to fire up a crowd and by early summer of 1793 the American pot was about to boil over. The uproar was creating a deep divide within the people and also in the government, exacerbating the already deep fissures between Washington’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. Hundreds, and even thousands of raucous people were protesting in front of the President’s house in Philadelphia, threatening to drag Washington out of his house and start a new revolution if he did not take up the French cause.
Vice-President John Adams borrowed muskets from the War Department to defend his house amidst the turmoil and wrote: “I am really apprehensive that if our people cannot be persuaded to be more decent, they will draw down calamities upon our country, that will weaken us to such a degree that we shall not recover.”
As the protests grew larger and more violent, Washington, Federalists, and increasing numbers of Republicans were fearful that the protests were spiraling out of control. The bold experiment in a Constitutional Republic was in danger of dissolving.
Then came the Yellow Fever.
The city of Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the Federal Government, lost over 10% of its citizens, over 5,000 died from this terrible outbreak. It was one of the most severe and deadly epidemics in American history.
No one knew what caused the Yellow Fever in 1793. It is a repugnant and horrific disease. It would be over 100 years before Dr. Walter Reed would make the connection between Yellow Fever and mosquitos. But what people did know was that they needed to flee the city to avoid the disease. And that is what thousands did, including the entire federal government.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, stayed in the city to treat the sick. Even though he didn’t understand the causes of the disease (he thought it was bad air in the city), his presence gave hope and comfort to many.
The epidemic not only stopped the protests, but it did something else. It unified the divided government. Once cold weather hit, the Yellow Fever disappeared because the mosquitos were gone. But the life and death struggle of the virus and the time away from Philadelphia gave all government leaders time to reflect on what was truly important. When Congress did meet again in December, there was a different attitude of respect and trust.
Years later John Adams reflected on the events of 1793 and wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The coolest and firmest minds have given their opinions to me, that nothing but the Yellow Fever could have saved the United States from a total revolution of government.”
Did the Yellow Favor save our nation? Well, if it didn’t save our nation it certainly was a wake-up call for a country that was in danger of falling apart due to intense polarization. Dr. James Roger Sharp, Professor Emeritus in History from Syracuse University makes this observation:
On the façade of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. are the inscribed words: “The Past is Prologue.” It is so very true.