In 1797 the city of Philadelphia experienced an epidemic of Yellow Fever. The residents of the city were all too familiar with the disease. In 1793, the city had faced one of the worst epidemics in the early republic. When the devastating Yellow Fever outbreak hit the city of 50,000, nearly 20,000 fled the city and almost 5,000 people perished.
Only four years later when Yellow Fever again gripped the city in the fall of 1797, residents had to weigh the benefits and costs of remaining in the city. One such resident was President John Adams. Adams had the power to decide whether the government would stay in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, or relocate.
In a letter to Adams, U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee hoped “the cold of winter in the climate at Philadelphia to be an antidote to the Yellow Fever as the experience of 1793 seems to warrant.” But Lee warned Adams against the potential “danger to the health and lives of the members” of Congress. In a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Adams asserted that he also hoped the fever would die down during the cold winter months. He optimistically decided Congress should continue to meet in Philadelphia.
Perhaps his decision not to disrupt the schedule of Congress had to do with foreign affairs. Friction with France, trading with Prussia, and treaties with England and Russia were all top priorities in Adams’ letters. The epidemic helps to show the many challenges facing the government of the early republic from unexpected sources, like Yellow Fever.