U.S.

George Washington’s Pandemic Leadership

George Washington with a facemask on the one-dollar bill in this illustration, March 31, 2020 (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
How our first president decided to lead the return to normal life after our first epidemic.

The plan the president proposed for venturing back out so soon after the worst of the epidemic worried his advisers. If he followed such a course, they warned, he would go against the instructions of doctors and, worse, give fellow citizens license to do the same. Nevertheless, into the city the next day rode George Washington.

In search of parallels to the coronavirus, much has been written about the yellow-fever epidemic that chased the fledgling federal government from its then-capital of Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1793. But the courage and independence that President Washington showed by returning to the city have gone largely overlooked — perhaps because the story does not conform to the mantra that medical expertise should always override political judgment during crises.

With the death toll mounting — eventually about 10 percent of the city’s population would perish — Washington had reluctantly joined the exodus from Philadelphia on September 10. Sensitive to symbolism, he would have delayed his departure, which he knew would demoralize the city. But he realized that his wife would insist on staying for as long as he did. “I could not think of hazarding her . . . any longer by my remaining in the city,” he wrote.

As Washington set off for his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, he expected to be away for no more than 18 days, a period short enough that he carried with him, as he explained, “no public papers of any sort.” But he had underestimated the crisis facing Philadelphia. Two months would pass before he again saw the residence that served as the president’s house in the city.

At Mount Vernon, Washington struggled not only to keep the government operational but also to obtain accurate information about what was happening in Philadelphia. In truth, even doctors there did not understand what caused yellow fever, and they allowed party politics to infect their theories. One group blamed environmental factors; another faulted foreigners. Washington’s own advisers were also divided. They could not agree, for example, whether the Constitution empowered the president to convene Congress at a site outside the limits of Philadelphia.

There was no doubt Washington could convene his own cabinet elsewhere, as he finally did, in a town just outside Philadelphia at the start of November. Yellow-fever cases in the city had dropped with the temperature. People had begun to return. Hopes rose that Congress could, too.

Washington made plans to ride into Philadelphia on November 11 to see for himself what was possible. But Attorney General Edmund Randolph begged the president to postpone his visit.

“The mayor and the physicians dissuade people from returning yet, and especially in great numbers,” Randolph wrote Washington the evening before. “You will hardly be at your door before your arrival will be rumored abroad, and multitudes, who will not distinguish between a momentary stay and absolute residence, will be induced by your example to crowd back and carry fresh . . . more vulnerable subjects into the bosom of infection.”

Randolph did not end his argument there. “Nor can I conceal a fear, which I have often heard expressed by the friends of yourself and the government, that your indifference about danger might push you perhaps too early into Philadelphia,” he added.

But Washington would not wait. He did not need to stay in Philadelphia long — not even overnight — for word of his visit to spread widely. Just as his departure from Philadelphia in September had not gone unnoticed, his brief return also made news. In the Philadelphia Federal Gazette appeared this item: “The editor with infinite pleasure mentions the arrival of the President of the United States in town this day.”

The next month, Washington would welcome Congress back to the city with his annual message. Philadelphia would remain the country’s capital until 1800. Yellow fever would return in the years ahead. But the American people had seen that their government could endure.

Concerning his own health, Washington would later say he was not “under any apprehension of the desolating fever.” But more than one man’s life was at stake on the day of Washington’s ride.

The attorney general had been right that whatever Washington did would send a message but had been wrong about who should decide its content. The medical experts had an important role. But when to risk venturing back out into the streets was not exclusively a medical decision. It was also a political decision and, in this case, properly made by a president.

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