The State’s Fiscal Health and Quarantine: The Challenge to Federalism from Yellow Fever in the 1790s

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:10 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Julia Mansfield, Yale University
In the summer of 1798, yellow fever struck all the major seaports of the United States. The epidemic was a viral infection spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and commercial ships traveling from the West Indies spread the mosquitoes. Yellow fever had started to spill over from the West Indies five years before. Between 1793 and 1798, it struck ports all along the Atlantic coast and wreaked havoc in the seats of foreign trade, New York and Philadelphia. Stopping yellow fever became imperative for state officials, who were responsible for public health, and their first tool was quarantine. However, this tool of public health posed a dilemma within a federalist government. Quarantine kept ships idle and locked up (at least temporarily) the capital needed to keep commerce running. Moreover, it interfered with the federal customs service, which had been set up to collect taxes on trade. Consequently, yellow fever triggered a power struggle between state and federal authorities. This conflict reached its peak in 1798 forcing the U.S. Congress to intervene. The solution that emerged – codified in the Quarantine Act of 1799 – established a partnership between the federal Treasury and local Health Offices to run a series of health stations along the Atlantic coast. This partnership was so successful that it lasted a century, but it has eluded the notice of historians studying public health or federal politics in the early United States. Recovering the history of quarantine in the early United States brings environmental history into discussions of political economy and reveals that yellow fever changed the daily practice of governance at the waterfront.
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