Port of Liberty, Port of Pestilence: Yellow Fever in the Imagination and Development of an American New Orleans, 1793–1813

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Paul Michael Warden, University of California, Santa Barbara
In imagining an American New Orleans, then future president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, confronted a paradox. The recent yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia had only emboldened his view that “great cities [were] pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man.” It followed that great cities, which he perceived as the folly of Europe, were the greatest potential enemy of the young republic. In yellow fever, Jefferson found an unlikely ally, noting that “Providence” ensured that even “great evils,” such as yellow fever, had the “means of producing some good.” Indeed, the president was consoled that the disease would continue to “discourage the growth of great cities in our nation.”

Yet, Jefferson was also convinced that the American procurement of New Orleans and its development into the dominant commercial center of the Americas was integral to the future of an agrarian, and thereby virtuous, republic. Believing yellow fever to be a symptom of urban blight, expanding New Orleans capacity as a commercial port, while limiting its potential for industrial growth, would not only protect the physical health of the residents but also ensure the spiritual health of the nation as a result. In communication with some of the most prominent scientific and philosophical minds of his time, Jefferson devised a plan to expand New Orleans’s commercial potential, while insulating it from the affliction that besieged the industrial northeast.

Once procured in the Louisiana Purchase, the reality on the ground was beyond even the then president’s control. Over the next ten years, yellow fever frustrated efforts to develop New Orleans into the port of liberty Jefferson envisioned. This paper examines the role that the disease played in the imagination and development of an American New Orleans from 1793 through the first decade of its existence.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>