Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

25.
The War Clouds Gather

It had long been a question whether Hamilton or Jefferson would retire first from the Cabinet. Neither man had spared any effort to make public life as uncomfortable as possible for his rival. But in the autumn of 1793, the issue seemed about to be resolved in favor of the Secretary of State. Hamilton fell dangerously ill of yellow fever; where Jefferson, Madison and Freneau had failed, a mosquito almost succeeded in laying low the "Colossus of Monocrats." 1

The summer of 1793 was unusually hot and humid in Philadelphia. Near the waterfront--particularly on Water Street, a narrow, filthy lane bordered by houses and high banks--the stagnant pools of water furnished a luxuriant breeding ground for mosquitoes. At the same time, hundreds of refugees were pouring into Philadelphia from San Domingo, where a slave uprising was running its bloody course. The refugee ships probably brought the yellow-fever virus to Philadelphia, and the mosquitoes took over from there. 2

Yellow fever was nothing new in Hamilton's experience; he had seen enough of that disease in the West Indies to treat it with respect. He therefore moved his family to a house a few miles outside Philadelphia and he himself commuted to the city to attend to his official business. Nevertheless, early in September, shortly after he had incautiously entered a house where a victim of yellow fever was confined (the doctors had warned citizens against such contact), Hamilton and his wife began to exhibit symptoms of the disease.

Political resentments curdled even the milk of human kindness. Thomas Jefferson was not inclined to show Hamilton charity in his illness: he advised the Secretary of the Treasury to pull himself together and act like a man. According to Jefferson's diagnosis, Hamilton was suffering from nothing more serious than a bad case of funk: "He had been miserable several days before," the Virginian noted, "with a firm persuasion he should catch it"; and now he was in danger only of frightening himself to death. It was a marvel to Jefferson how this poor maligner had ever won a reputation for

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