COVID-19 has sent America and the rest of the world into a panic. This is not the first time the United States had dealt with the fear of a disease or virus.
In 1793 a deadly virus known as Yellow Fever began to spread in the newly founded United States. It was labelled as a pandemic in Philidelphia, which was at that time the capital. Many members of the government fled, but some did not. Alexander Hamilton, Secretary Treasurer under the Washington administration stayed in Philadelphia and in September, he and his wife contracted the fever. His children were sent to a house next door and later to their grandparent’s estate in Albany.
According to the official History.com website, over 5,000 people died in Philadelphia, that was approximately 10% of the city’s population (for perspective at present, less than 0.1% of New York’s population has died of COVID-19.) Thankfully, Hamilton was not one of those men. Thanks to a physician who went against what the Benjamin Rush (the leading medical doctor at the time) recommended. He fully recovered and on September 15, 1793, he made his way to Albany, New York.
What Hamilton did not realize was that his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, had made a deal with Albany mayor, Abraham Yates, that the family would remain on the Schuylar Estate to not further spread the disease.
When Hamilton found out, he was furious. He outlined in a lengthy letter that it was not the states right to demand that he stay on the estate or in modern terms, “shelter in place” or “quarantine”.
Several phrases apply not only to his situation but also the one the United States has now been placed in.
When restating General Schuylar’s agreement, he added,
…but which are [the restrictions] of a nature too derogatory to my rights, as a citizen of this State, to be permitted by me to continue in force. I feel that by doing it I should betray those rights, and none of the principles which have hitherto governed my Conduct will allow me to be accessory, by my acquiescence, to so improper a sacrifice.
Founding Father, War Hero, and one of the greatest defenders of the Constitution, believed that asking him to stay home due to his exposure to a deadly virus was “derogatory to his rights” and an “improper sacrifice”.
He went on to say that,
I am far from disapproving in the Magistracy or Citizens of Albany a careful attention to their own preservation from a contagious disease. But permit me to say they are both under an indispensable obligation to regulate their precautions by the rules of reason moderation & humanity. They are not at liberty to sport with the rights and feelings of a fellow Citizen. They are not at liberty to adopt a principle of conduct which if generally pursued in the full extent of its consequences would expose him to perish in the fields without subsistence & without shelter.
Hamilton was very clear that, while it is wise to set up precautions, it is never right to limit the freedom of a state’s citizens.
He ended the letter with very strong words to the mayor.
The result will determine whether from causeless apprehension, in violation of law & right, of that protection which is the primary object of Society—citizens are to be excluded from an asylum in the bosom of their family; in other words whether a Citizen has rights or not; and whether a public Officer who persevering in a faithful discharge of his duty, undeterred by considerations of personal hazard has happened to contract a contagious disease is, in return, when perfectly recovered to be deprived by arbitrary and tyrannical means of the essential rights of a member of the Society—merely because it has been his lot to have had a dangerous disease.
In the execution of this plan, which force alone can interrupt, I count equally on the exertions of the Magistracy to prevent lawless violence and on the good dispositions of the body of the Citizens, who will respect their own security & rights too much to permit those of a fellow Citizen to be violated.
Alexander Hamilton made it abundantly clear, that the people of America had the right to move around freely and to assemble in any way they wished. He spoke of this being a form of tyranny and a violation of his rights. He believed that the American people had brains of their own and it was insulting of Yates, even in a position of leadership, to dictate how a person chose to live their life, epidemic or not.
Hamilton was so firm in his beleif, that he said if the restirctions were not revoked immediatly, he would leave Albany and reenter under his own terms. There is no doubt that if Alexander Hamilton were alive today, he would be opposed to the quarentineand likely even break it.
According to this Founding Father, the states that have ordered people not leave their homes or attend any event are violating the rights of an American citizen. If we are to stay in league with the Constitution, the very foundation of this country, we must revoke all restrictions on assemblies and gatherings of any number of people.
Read the full letter by Alexander Hamilton here.