John Jay and the Yellow Fever Epidemics (Part 1)


As New York City is effectively shut down by a pandemic, we can remember that the COVID-19 outbreak is only the most recent to visit the region. During much of New York City’s early history, waves of infectious disease—including smallpox, measles, cholera, and yellow fever—struck the populace and severely disrupted public health, the economy, governance, social relations, and daily activities.

At The Selected Papers of John Jay, we have been thinking in particular about the outbreaks of yellow fever that devastated New York City in the 1790s during Jay’s governorship. In the hopes that some may find this information useful as they re-think lesson plans for online teaching and research, we are previewing here a headnote by associate editor Brant M. Vogel entitled “John Jay and the Yellow Fever Epidemics” (forthcoming in vol. 6 of The Selected Papers of John Jay). The headnote describes many parallels between the yellow fever outbreaks of the late eighteenth century to the current one. Jay, alongside other municipal, state, and federal officials, sought to formulate, implement, and co-ordinate an effective governmental response; medical personnel sought to understand the nature of the disease and the best ways to treat it, often at the expense of their lives; and citizens sought to maintain a sense of community among food shortages, labor hardships, and fear of the unknown.

We’ve included the first part of the headnote here. The second part will appear on Thursday.

John Jay and the Yellow Fever Epidemics

Almost immediately upon his return to the United States and his election as governor of New York, Jay would have to deal with a deadly threat: yellow fever. The disease would return to New York yearly throughout Jay’s tenure, with epidemics in 1795, 1796, 1798, 1799, and 1800. In his actions and correspondence, Jay revealed his belief that government should act proactively to protect citizens, not just from war, but from other threats such as disease. In particular, preventative public health efforts were instituted to reduce local causes (then believed to be filth and “miasma”), at the same time that the traditional practice of quarantine was employed.

Yellow Fever

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, yellow fever, also known as Yellow Jack, was a yearly visitor to the Caribbean and the American South, and appeared with regularity in the North. New York, susceptible as a port city, had outbreaks in 1702, 1731, 1742, and 1743. In 1793, Philadelphia experienced a major epidemic, marking the beginning of the disease’s thirty-year appearance in the northern states. Lasting from July to November, the 1793 epidemic killed approximately 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population.1

The yellow fever virus is spread between humans by the mosquito, Aedes aegypti. In the 1790s, however, the disease was ascribed to either direct contagion or environmental causes (infectious). The direct contagion theory held that the disease originated elsewhere, and was spread by direct contact with infected people and things. The environmental theory held that the disease was domestic in origin, produced by a confluence of certain conditions–humidity, rotten animal flesh, stagnant water, filth–which created the conditions (particularly miasmas, or bad air) for the disease to spread. Proponents of the direct contagion theory believed that quarantine and the banning of social and business intercourse with infected places was the proper response to an outbreak of the disease. Proponents of the environmental theory believed that the disease could be held in check by public sanitation work, such as the cleaning up of public areas, paving streets, and draining cellars.2

The Epidemic of 1795

New York City served as the state capital in 1795, and was rapidly growing, in both population and commercial importance. In 1790 the population was approximately 33,000; by 1800, it had grown to 60,000.3 Foreign immigration began to contribute significantly to this increase, in addition to those who came from the rural United States. Housing was inadequate; multiple families crowded into formerly single-family dwellings. Sanitation was almost nonexistent, with waste and garbage flowing in the streets.4

New York had suffered a mini-epidemic in 1791, with 100 deaths. The city responded to Philadelphia’s 1793 epidemic with quarantine and a measure to enforce the City’s law against nuisances. By proclamation, New York’s governor, George Clinton, citing a 1784 quarantine law, banned all intercourse with Philadelphia. Despite this measure, the City of New York did contribute funds to the relief effort. Clinton’s proclamation became the model for similar measures passed in the ensuing two years under his and Jay’s administrations.5

The events of 1793 resulted in the creation of the Health Committee (later Commission), a quasi-governmental public health group. On 13 September 1793, in tandem with the governor’s proclamation, a citizen’s committee for the city, chaired by Comfort Sands, appointed a seven member committee consisting of Robert Bowne (chair), John Broome (chair),6 Robert Lenox, Nathaniel Hazard, White Matlack, Dr. Samuel Bard, and the Health Officer for the Port of New York Dr. Malachi Treat (appointed 10 January 1792). The Health Committee would be tasked with employing doctors to assist in the inspection of ships and inspectors to monitor the docks and ferry landings. At the next Common Council meeting of 16 September, Mayor Richard Varick and the Council appointed an additional Health Committee charged with helping the “Committee appointed by the Inhabitants” consisting of four aldermen (Isaac Stoutenburgh, John Campbell, Gabriel Furman, and Theophilus Beekman) and three members of the Common Council (assistant aldermen Frederick Stymeets, Nicholas Carmer, and George Janeway). According to their own minutes, the two Committees acted as one.7 The Health Committee at this point supported the theory of direct contagion, and lobbied heavily for strict quarantine laws, such as a 27 March amendment to the Act of 1784–a measure that expanded the quarantine to all ships entering New York, employed a salaried health officer, and designated Governors Island as a quarantine station with the additional appointment, if needed, of physicians for Albany and Hudson.8 During the 1794 fever season, Governor Clinton would appoint the Health Committee (membership intact) as a state commission funded by that amendment.9

Rumors of yellow fever in the West Indies again reached New York the following summer. Jay, having just assumed the role of governor, would have to work quickly, with the infrastructure already established by the City and left behind by Governor Clinton. On 20 July, Malachi Treat, one of three Health Officers appointed to inspect ships, examined three sick sailors on the brig Zephyr, just arrived from Port-au-Prince. During the course of her journey, the ship’s boy had died of fever. The three sailors soon recovered, but Treat (who had autopsied the boy’s body) took sick on 22 July and died eight days later. Treat’s death gave fuel to the contagion model, justifying the quarantine strategy. At the same time, sailors aboard the ship William, in from Liverpool, fell ill, as did several people in the neighborhood. While the disease appeared to be confined, rumors of an epidemic were not, and on 8 August, the chairman of the city’s Health Committee, John Broome, was forced to act. He issued a statement that all measures were being taken to confine the fever: quarantine and cleaning up of “nuisances.” A quarantine center was established in a makeshift hospital and almshouse at Belle Vue farm to receive fever victims, on land leased from Brockholst Livingston, located several miles outside the city on the East River. The city later purchased the land in 1798.10 In mid-August, as a precautionary measure, Jay declared the New York ports closed to all vessels from the West Indies and the Mediterranean. With the exception of Treat, who had died, and Matlack, “who was absent,” Jay kept all of Clinton’s appointees on the Health Committee, replacing Treat with his former pupil, William Pitt Smith, as Health Officer.11 It is notable that a good number of Clinton appointees were Republicans, most notably Broome (who on the same day the ill-fated Treat boarded the Zephyr, joined Brockholst Livingston’s Citizen’s Committee against the Jay Treaty), but either for the sake of practicality, collegiality, or political prudence, Jay chose continuity, with fever season looming. Matlack, seen by some as a rabid anti-Federalist and Jay Treaty opponent, may have been absent for political reasons, or, like many citizens of means, may have fled the disease.12

Throughout August, the Health Committee continued to deny that there was an epidemic. The public, however, refused to ignore the reports of further deaths, and on 21 August, the Health Committee was forced to admit that there had been twelve deaths from the fever. Three days later, they declared that an epidemic did exist, but limited its impact to the area surrounding the docks on the East River. By September, the city was in full panic, and almost all those citizens who had the means to leave New York, did so.13

In late August, Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin issued a proclamation “interdicting the customary intercourse” between New York and Philadelphia (and Norfolk where the disease also appeared).14 Previous to this ban, the management of the nascent epidemic had been the concern of the Mayor and City Council. The extent of Jay’s power in this situation was questionable. The governor could suggest legislation, but he lacked the power of veto. He was a member of the Council of Revision, but that body possessed little real power to override the legislature. Moreover, much of the state was highly suspicious when the governor sought to exercise authority. Executive power, as used by Clinton, grew more out of influence and party interest than specific powers. Jay, as a Federalist, was a proponent of a strong executive as a check on legislative power, but he had to act carefully. As the issue of interstate commerce involved the state executive, the ban forced Jay to act more directly.

Jay wrote John Charlton of the city’s Medical Society on 4 September, to gather, in conjunction with the College of Physicians, the Health Committee, and the City Council, information regarding the supposed epidemic: “This Proclamation, by exciting alarms & apprehensions throughout this and the neighbouring States, and in foreign Countries, naturally tends to produce Embarrassments to the Commerce of this City and to interrupt that Intercourse with the Country, which is at all times necessary to the convenience and Interests of both.” Jay was anxious to have the quarantine lifted, as it could prove disastrous to the city’s, and therefore state’s, economy, especially if other states followed suit. However, he was unwilling to suppress information that would sacrifice public health. “If such a Disease does really exist and prevail here, it should candidly be admitted and made known, that the Dangers resulting from it may be guarded against.” The resultant reports stated that eighty-nine deaths had been reported and that all precautions had been taken to contain the disease. Jay sent copies of the reports to Governor Mifflin on 9 Sept., concluding “I flatter myself it will appear to your Excellency from these Documents that it is not necessary to suspend the Intercourse between this City and Philadelphia, and that therefore the Prohibition in Question will be revoked.” Despite his efforts, the ban continued through October, as the disease spread and the numbers of ill and dead increased.15

Jay did his best to serve as an example to others and quell panic. He turned down an invitation by the French Consul to a “republican entertainment” on the grounds that it would be inappropriate, thus avoiding a potentially indelicate political situation. On 3 October, he declined John Blanchard’s offer to let the Jay family evacuate to Blanchard’s home in Meadow Ridge, New Jersey. He believed the epidemic was waning and would send “Mrs. Jay and the Children” (but not himself) to the country only if the danger grew worse.16

By the end of October, the epidemic had begun to abate. Thomas Mifflin rescinded the ban on intercourse, and sent along $7,000 as aid to the city (repaying the kindness New York City paid Philadelphia in 1793). By November, the Health Committee reported 732 total deaths. The cost to the city, in terms of both direct expenses and lost commerce, was enormous.17

Jay issued a general call for a day of Thanksgiving for 26 November. This proclamation is suffused with Jay’s religious beliefs, saying that the late sickness only serves to remind the populace that all, good and bad, is in the hands of the “Supreme Ruler of All Nations.”18 This seemingly benign recommendation (not even an order) brought forth an immediate flood of criticism from political opponents. Jay’s title of “Commander in Chief of the State of New York” was mocked for pretense and seen as indicative of an ambitious executive.19 References were repeatedly made to the Jay Treaty. One author suggested that the Treaty was responsible for God’s wrath, and inquired, “Would it not do well for the Clergy to add their most fervent petitions, that the Almighty Ruler of the Universe would be pleased to turn the heart of our enemy, the King of Great Britain–that he would extend his gracious protection to our unhappy brethren who are daily falling into the hands of British pirates, and save our commerce from future depredations.”20 Opposition papers also mocked Jay’s pious tone which “possesses such genuine ingredients of the whining cant of religious hypocrisy as render him worthy of a cardinal’s hat, and will even fit him for the Papal Dignity in time.”21 Jay’s defenders responded by railing against the spirit of party: “It outrages all senses of decency–all regard for virtue and religion. The proposed ejaculation on the treaty, is open profanity. To countenance such shameful scurrility, is a proof of public depravity.”22

  1. K. David Patterson, “Yellow Fever Epidemics and Mortality in the United States, 1693-1905,” Social Science & Medicine 34 (1992): 855-65.

Of those infected by yellow fever virus, 75-85 percent recover after four to six days. However, others enter into the acute phase of the disease within twenty-four hours, in which the patient becomes jaundiced, suffers from severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and stomach, producing black bile and black stools. The kidneys then fail, and approximately half of those in the acute phase die in ten to fourteen days. Those who survive suffer no organ damage, and all survivors (of the lesser and more severe manifestation of the disease) gain permanent immunity. “Yellow Fever,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (accessed Apr. 2018).

  1. Thomas A. Apel, Feverish Bodies, Enlightened Minds: Science and the Yellow Fever Controversy in the Early American Republic (Stanford, 2016), Introduction, 1-10.

It should be noted that eighteenth century sources often use the term “infectious” when referring to what modern medicine calls “contagious,” as seen in the quarantine legislation of the 1790s.

  1. Ira Rosenwaike, Population History of New York City (Syracuse, 1972), 202.
  2. Yellow fever was at the center of the creation of public sanitation and public works, starting in 1799 and after. The cleaning of the streets and waterways was formerly left to private individuals. Hendrik Hartog, Public Property and Private Power: The Corporation of the City of New York in American Law, 1730-1870 (Ithaca, 1983), 131-33.
  3. MCCNYC, 2: 34. The proclamation quotes directly from the quarantine act of 1784: “Whereas, by statute, entitled, ‘An act to prevent bringing in, and spreading of INFECTIOUS DISTEMPERS in this state,’ it is enacted, ‘That all vessels of whatever kind they may be, having on board any person or persons infected with the YELLOW FEVER, or any other contagious distemper, or coming from any places infected with such contagious distemper, shall not come into any of the ports or harbours of this state, or nearer the city of New York than the island commonly called Bedlow’s Island.’ And whereas it is represented to me, that the city of Philadelphia is now infected with a contagious distemper; wherefore I DO, by these Presents, strictly forbid and prohibit all vessels, coming from Philadelphia aforesaid, and all other vessels coming from any other place infected with any contagious distemper, or having on board any person or persons infected therewith, from entering any of the ports of this state, or to approach nearer to the city of New York than the said island called Bedlow’s Island . . . .” New-York Journal, 14 Sept. 1793.

Clinton’s quarantine proclamation of 1794, quoted in full in JJ’s 1795 proclamation, used nearly the same language, substituting New Orleans and the West Indies as the areas under interdiction. Clinton’s proclamation was worded to fit exactly that of the “Act to prevent bringing in, and spreading of INFECTIOUS DISTEMPERS,” which was passed 4 May 1784, and reprinted two days previously. This act was based on “An Act to prevent the bringing in and spreading of infectious Distempers in this Colony,” legislation passed on 24 Mar. 1758, in response to small pox and yellow fever, and revived in 1762. JJ’s proclamations, likewise, kept to established precedent and legislative acts. Daily Advertiser (New York), 26 Aug. 1794; “Proclamation Regarding Quarantine,” 27 Apr. 1797, below; N.Y. State Laws, (1777-97), 1: 117-19; Diary (New York), 11 Sept. 1793; Laws of New-York, from the year 1691, to 1773 inclusive (New York, [1774]), 368-69, 432-33.

  1. Bowne served as chair at the first meeting on 13 Sept., and Broome was chair of the expanded Health Committee at the 16 Sept. 1793 meeting and thereafter.
  2. Committee of Health, “Minute Book”; MCCNYC, 33-34. See also Shrady, “Medical Items,” 419. Robert Bowne (1744-1818), Quaker merchant, Federalist, founder of the printing firm Bowne & Co., founding director of the Bank of New York and Mutual Assurance Co., member of the New York Hospital, New York Chamber of Commerce, and the Manumission Society; John Broome (1738-1810), merchant and politician; Gabriel Furman (1756–1844), Alderman, 1st ward (1792-99), became Health Commission chair in 1799; Robert Lenox (1759-1839), merchant and philanthropist, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce, Alderman, 2nd Ward (1795-97); Theophilus Beekman (1749-1807), merchant, Alderman, Montgomery Ward, 5th Ward (1789-96); Nathaniel Hazard (1748-98), merchant; Samuel Bard, physician and founder of the first New York Hospital and the medical school at Columbia University; Isaac Stoutenburgh (1738-99), Alderman, 4th (West) Ward (1789-95), New York State Senator (1778-87), Commissioner to build first state prison; John Campbell (1740-98), Alderman, 6th Ward (1792-96); Frederick Steymets (Stymets, Stymeets) (1750-95), member of the Corporation, Assistant Alderman, 1st Ward (1792-95); Nicholas Carmer, Assistant Alderman for the 3rd (East) Ward (1791-1801); George Janeway (1741-1826), Assistant Alderman, 6th Ward (1792-96). For appointments of the second committee, see MCCNYC, 2: 34, and 19: 729-31. For the rest of the Committee, see “Proclamation on Yellow Fever,” 13 Aug. 1795, note 4, below.
  3. See Duffy, History of Public Health, 101. The full title of the law was “An Act to amend the act, entitled, an act to prevent the bringing in and spreading of infectious Distempers in this State”. Charles Dekay Cooper (1769-1831), physician, Republican, and future Secretary of State of New York (1817-18), was appointed to the Albany post at this time. Daily Advertiser (New York), 21 June 1794; N.Y. State Laws, (1777-97), 3: 144-45.
  4. Committee of Health, “Minute Book,” 22 Aug. 1794.
  5. Duffy, History of Public Health, 102; Heaton, “Yellow Fever,” 68-70; and Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 357. For an account of the Zephyr incident, see the Health Committee Report, 8 Sept. 1795, enclosed in JJ to the Governor of Pennsylvania (Thomas Mifflin), 9 Sept. 1795, below.

Belle Vue had been the property of Lindley Murray, who, on leaving New York, sold it to a Thomas Smith in 1786. The farm came into the hands of Henry Brockholst Livingston, who was leasing it for £90 a year with an agreement to sell for £1,800, which the City offered to assume without meeting Livingston’s desired price of £2,000. The Common Council began negotiating in earnest in late 1795, and the sale was settled in April 1798 for £1,800, after Livingston had received several years of rent. Monaghan, Murrays of Murray Hill, 88; MCCNYC, 2: 100-101, 202, 431-33; Claude Edwin Heaton, “The Origins and Growth of Bellevue Hospital,”Academy Bookman 12 (1959), 6-7; Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 502-3.

  1. Anderson, Physician heal thyself, 182.
  2. Duffy, History of Public Health, 127; Committee of Health, “Minute Book”; “Proclamation on Yellow Fever,” 13 Aug. 1795, below.

On John Broome’s political activities, see New York Citizens to GW, 20 July 1795, PGW: PS, 18: 370-82.

Charles Adams (1770-1800), son of John and Abigail Adams, and a New York lawyer, discussed Matlack’s political involvement with the Livingston Republicans and a related political meeting: “At the first gathering of Citizens on thursday the Cloven foot was discovered and The Democratic Society stood exposed to view The weather cock politics of the Livingstons is not unknown to you They were active in the scene The first Orator was a Mr White Matlack an excommunicated Quaker who for lesser crimes had long since been read out of their Society and who since by fraudulent bankruptcies defrauding widows and filching the poor pittance of the Orphan had sufficiently brazened his face for advocating a total neglect of payment of our debts to England the favorite subject upon which he discanted. The Livingstons came next The detestation of Hamilton and all his proceedings begged in head and ears Indian Wars Algerine depredations British impositions Generosity of France all these were consequences of The Chancellors dissappointment in not obtaining the place of Secretary of the Treasury—-” Charles Adams to JA, 5 Mar. 1794, Adams Family Correspondence, 10: 98-101.

  1. Duffy, History of Public Health, 103; Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 357.
  2. Philadelphia Gazette, 1 Sept. 1795.
  3. See JJ to Thomas Mifflin, 9 Sept. 1795, enclosing JJ to John Charlton, 4 Sept., Charlton to JJ, 5 Sept., JJ to John Broome, 6 Sept., JJ to Richard Varick, 6 Sept., Broome to JJ, 8 Sept., New York City Committee on Health to JJ, 8 Sept., and Richard Varick to JJ, 8 Sept. 1795, below.
  4. JJ to the French Consul, 19 Sept., and to John Blanchard, 3 Oct. 1795, both below.
  5. See Mifflin to JJ on lifting the quarantine, 21 Oct. 1795, printed in Davis, Brief Account, 52-53; JJ to Mifflin, 29 Oct. 1795, ALS, PHi (EJ: 01129). On the donation, see MCCNYC, 2: 181-82; Duffy, History of Public Health, 104. On the death toll, see Heaton, “Yellow Fever,” 71.
  6. Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, 11 Nov. 1795, below. See also John Sloss Hobart to JJ, 18-19 Nov. 1795, below, for a humorous take on the controversy.
  7. See for instance, “Juvenus”, “For the New-York Journal, &c.,” Greenleaf’s New York Journal, 9 Dec. 1795; Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, 11 Nov. 1795, note 1, below.
  8. Argus, Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser (New York), 14 Nov.; Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), 17 Nov.; Hampshire Chronicle (Springfield), 23 Nov.; City Gazette (Charleston), 31 Dec. 1795.
  9. Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), 14 Nov.; Richmond Chronicle, 24 Nov. 1795.
  10. Otsego Herald (Cooperstown), 26 Nov. 1795.

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