Ye Olde Social Distancing
Today, Monticello celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s 277th birthday by live streaming on Facebook a conversation with our third president. People posed questioned and Jefferson—as played by masterful historical interpreter Bill Barker—responded from the entrance hall of the house, a room stuffed with elk bones and Roman statues. As he talked, likes, hearts, and happy-face emojis floated onto the screen, sent by fans from across the world.
Monticello’s event was necessarily light, spreading a little joy in these dark times. The house itself has been closed since March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The unusual event left me wondering what the actual Jefferson—if somehow rematerialized on earth to attend his birthday party—would have thought of it. Although the tech would have fascinated him, the context in which the event occurred—a pandemic—would have sadly seemed all too familiar to him.
Probably more familiar to him than to us. For Jefferson lived in a world convulsed by epidemics and diseases that killed silently. He was far from immune to tragedy; among other losses, his daughter Lucy died of whooping cough at age two. And as Secretary of State, Jefferson survived the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. Five thousand died, some ten percent of the city’s population. “I quarantined myself in my house along the Schuylkill river, surrounded by lovely plane trees,” Jefferson, via Barker, recalled.
During that long-ago crisis, the population didn’t fully understand why and what was happening. But they knew they had to stay away from possibly infected citizens. In scenes that resonate today, people avoided handshakes and steered clear of others by leaving the sidewalk for the safety of the middle of the street.
Throughout the emergency, Jefferson projected a sense of calm. He kept working from his house, tracking symptoms and the spread of the outbreak, noting the daily mortality statistics—but guarding against unnecessary “alarm,” as he wrote in a letter. In private, he worried that residents fleeing Philadelphia would carry the “putrid” disease with them and wondered if a change in the seasons would end the virus. He recognized the “rational danger” remaining in the capital put him in, but kept working out of his riverside house so as not to “exhibit the appearance of panic” before his fellow citizens.
He also avoided falling prey to presumed quick fixes. Even though prominent physician Benjamin Rush was a close friend, he never subscribed to the doctor’s practice of bleeding patients. In medical matters, Jefferson invariably preferred to do nothing rather than something that might make things worse. Only when work in Philadelphia became impossible—almost all the clerks had left town—did Jefferson retreat to Monticello, where he “teleworked” from his (sumptuous) home office.
Jefferson employed this combination of composure and willingness to wait for the right scientific cure when combating other diseases as well. Years later, in 1801, in his first term as President, he oversaw the inoculation of some 200 members of his family, enslaved workforce, and neighbors against smallpox, performing many of the vaccinations himself, “placing our family and neighbors in perfect security.” Some were afraid of this method—the vaccine itself could make a patient sick. But he took care to note reactions to the shots and shared his findings with doctors across the country, encouraging them to undertake similar public health campaigns.
Fighting infectious disease—through listening to scientists, remaining calm, and slowing the spread of a virus—then, would not have surprised Jefferson in the least. Nor the need to wait out the pandemic in safety, protecting oneself and others.
Barker, as Jefferson, shared his lessons for enduring a quarantine. “To be in the bosom of one’s family is one of the greatest of blessings”—appreciate that if you’re lucky enough to be with them. “Open a book, draw pictures with your own imagination.” Treasure your surroundings. Find peace in them. He reminded us of a letter Jefferson wrote in the summer of ’93, from his wooded house on the Schuylkill, to his daughter Martha back home. “I never before knew,” he wrote, “the full value of trees.”