Home chapters Chapter 1 - How America's First Community Organizer Used a Pandemic to Steal an Election - Preview
Home chapters Chapter 1 - How America's First Community Organizer Used a Pandemic to Steal an Election - Preview

Chapter 1 - How America's First Community Organizer Used a Pandemic to Steal an Election - Preview

Using a disease outbreak to change voting rules and rig an election isn’t a new idea. Two hundred years ago, the father of the Democratic urban political machine used the fear of a virus to stuff the voting rolls, win an election, change the course of history, and nearly become the president of the United States

n the spring of 1793, the nation’s first president had taken his second oath of office in Congress Hall. By the fall, the new country’s government and much of Philadelphia’s population had fled the city’s yellow fever epidemic. 

In a letter to James Madison, President George Washington, who had joined the Philadelphia exodus of 1793, discussed convening Congress somewhere else: “If cool weather accompanied with rain does not put a stop to the Malady, distressing indeed must be the condition of that City—now almost depopulated by removals & deaths.” 

The federal government—which had only recently moved to Philadelphia—fell apart, as Washington returned to Virginia, and Vice President Adams withdrew to his home in Massachusetts.

Those Philadelphians who could afford to fled the center of the nation’s government. Those who couldn’t turned to homespun cures, from leeches to pieces of tar. Men covered their faces in public, and put garlic in their shoes, while women and children took to smoking cigars.

For some, the outbreak was no more serious than the flu; others died painfully within a week.

The city’s Municipal Hospital was set up in a rented circus tent while angry mobs threatened to set fire to it and the dying men and women inside with it. What was left of the city’s political elites exchanged blame in broadsheets and feuded over dueling ineffective cures, while the houses left empty by the 20,000 who had fled the city were picked over by robbers.

Philadelphians fleeing the city were beaten and refused food and shelter on the road out of fear that they might be carrying the disease. One woman was stripped, tarred, and feathered, and her wagon was burned. A man “taken sick on the road” was allowed to lie in a village “calling for water for a considerable time in vain” until a woman brought him a pitcher, and “laid it at a distance, desiring him to crawl to it.

New Yorkers reacted hysterically to the 1793 outbreak. “A Boat arrived at New York from Jersey with passengers the Mob collected and insisted upon it they were infected, and after they had landed the Mob forced them on board again,” Secretary of War Henry Knox, who was officially in charge of the country, wrote to Washington.

The yellow fever outbreak had forced the evacuation of the national government and crushed any hopes that Philadelphia’s civic leaders had of retaining the national capital. The government had already been forced to flee in 1783 after unpaid soldiers had occupied Congress

 The Democratic Party’s political takeover of New York began by prom ising to stop the spread of a virus and provide relief for ordinary people, only to worsen the problem, exploit the crisis, and use it to fill the pockets of its leaders and allies.

Learn more about how the yellow fever outbreak transformed the 1800 presidential election in Chapter 1 - 1793–1800: HOW AMERICA’S FIRST COMMUNITY ORGANIZER USED A PANDEMIC TO BUILD THE DEMOCRATIC URBAN POLITICAL MACHINE AND STEAL AN ELECTION

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