Epidemics of varying degrees were not uncommon in the 19th century. Washington, DC was especially notorious for its unhealthy atmosphere and saw frequent outbreaks of disease such as yellow fever. During one such period in April 1815, James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson that he “…had suffer’d much from a very severe attack of the sciatick, or rather of the prevailing epidemick which seized on the weaker parts of the system. From this, I soon recoverd, so far as to attend to business, but have not yet regaind my strength, and am affected by cold & sometimes fever on the slightest exposure.” Monroe had written to James Madison earlier that month, inquiring after Dolley Madison’s health with regard to the same outbreak: “We hope that Mrs. Madison’s indisposition, was the effect of the fatigue of the journey only, and not the epidemic.”
Historians often sit at the crossroads of the past and the present, and as such, find a modicum of reassurance in the familiar sentiments of concern, resilience, and recovery echoed in the letters of earlier Americans. We hope that our assembled resources provide an interesting (and possibly even useful) diversion during this time of difficulty and uncertainty.
James Monroe to Thomas Jefferson, 26 April 1815 (Library of Congress, Jefferson Papers); The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series 8:442–444
James Monroe to James Madison, 3 April 1815 (Library of Congress, Madison Papers); The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series 9:135–136