Though it may feel like the politicization of everything—professional sports, higher education, fast food restaurants, law enforcement, pizza delivery—is a late phenomenon, perhaps we can take some comfort from the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic from 1793 to show us that this may simply be our way.
In the fall of 1793, a vicious Yellow Fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, at time the temporary U.S. capital during President Washington’s administration. The epidemic infected 10,000 of Philadelphia’s 50,000 inhabitants, killing 5,000 of them.
Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury was infected. He was treated by his childhood friend and physician Edward Stevens. When Hamilton wrote a letter and published it in his Federalist leaning National Gazette, recommending the types of treatments Stevens adhered to, chamomile tea, laudanum, and other herbal remedies, over the established treatment of U.S. Constitution signer Benjamin Rush, bleeding, enemas and mercury, a political brawl broke out.
Hamilton’s political foe Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson accused Hamilton of faking his illness, cowardice and the irresponsible endorsement of the upstart Stevens leading to the deaths of Philadelphians.
Emerging from the political/medical debate came a “Republican” way to treat Yellow Fever, and a “Federalist” way to treat Yellow Fever.
For the record, Stevens appears to have been more effective, in as much as it didn’t poison and remove blood from a compromised immune system.
The moral of the story is that we fight over politics and we find ways to do it in everything. We always have. Sometimes we do it less when we have something else to fight over like a war or a financial crisis. But we fight over anything we can figure out how to draw up factions over.
It’s not new.