It Keeps Happening Here

Joyce E. Chaplin

Map from Edmund Charles Wendt, A Treatise on Asiatic Cholera (1885), reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

(This is the first of five essays on pandemics, disease, and health in the early republic that Professor Chaplin has organized as a Roundtable for the Panorama.)

Context: we’re not in the middle of a pandemic—we’re in the middle of several. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19, joins two ongoing global contagions. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS has been a global disease since 1981. There is still no vaccine against it. HIV-related deaths have declined by 60 percent since they peaked in 2004, but hundreds of thousands of infected people still die annually, around 690,000 in 2019. Meanwhile, the world’s seventh cholera pandemic, history’s longest-running pandemic, began in Indonesia in 1961. Each year, there are an estimated 1.3 to 4.0 million cases of cholera and 21,000‒143,000 deaths. While rarely present in the United States and no longer fatal, cholera once was deadly and recurrent, above all during the early republic. Historians of the early republic have barely noted this, however. Their silence is a significant problem for comprehension of the histories of disease and health in the United States, and it is downright puzzling, given that one of the most influential books in the history of medicine, Charles E. Rosenberg’s Cholera Years (1962), is on this very topic.

Native to South Asia, Vibrio cholerae bacteria migrated out to the rest of the inhabited world with the help of European imperialism. Among humans, the disease has a pattern of fecal‒oral transmission that can progress rapidly in places and times without sanitary water supplies. A mobile, infected human can harbor the bacterium in their gut and gift it to a population far from its original source. The first cholera pandemic (1817‒24) stretched from the Philippines to Turkey. The next (1829‒51) extended into Russia, then western Europe, crossing the Atlantic and entering Canada in the summer of 1832. It reached New York in late June. By July 19, the peak of mortality in New York City, 3,515 people had died out of a population of 250,000, 1.4 percent of the city’s residents lost in less than a month. (In comparison, .28 percent of New York’s population has died of COVID-19 within six months.) Two more cholera pandemics afflicted the United States in 1852‒59 and 1860‒75. The disease brought not only death but degradation. Unless someone has resistance to the bacterium, they develop torrential vomiting or diarrhea, if not both. Victims can become catastrophically dehydrated—they turn a morbid blue and their flesh shrinks, giving them a skeletal appearance even before death. Uncertainty about the cause of the disease and the swiftness of patients’ deaths added to the terror, even in outbreaks with low mortality rates.[1]

Given the pandemics’ impact in the United States—decades of fear, years of suffering, thousands of deaths—they are oddly understudied. A combined subject keyword (SKEY) search in the for the Library of Congress, using “cholera” and “history,” yields 167 hits. Only five of them are about the United States, and only three of those are monographs focused on cholera in the early republic: Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, with a new afterword (1987), Owen Whooley, Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (2013), and Richard Adler, Cholera in Detroit: A History (2013). Although the latter two books are classified as histories they are by, respectively, a sociologist and a microbiologist.[2]

Three is not a large number. In comparison, out of those 167 titles, fifteen focus on cholera in the nineteenth-century German-speaking lands. And it’s striking that only one of the three monographs on the early republic is by a historian, Rosenberg, based on a dissertation written during the Eisenhower administration. Maybe historians of the early republic have neglected cholera because they were unaware of it? Consider the Journal of the Early Republic. Founded in 1980, it never reviewed any of the three main books on cholera in the early republic (Rosenberg 1987; Whooley 2013; Adler 2013). And, to date, only two JER articles have focused on cholera, in 2006 and 2007. Meanwhile, in his 855-page What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815‒1848 (2007), Daniel Walker Howe devoted two paragraphs to the cholera outbreaks, also making four brief references back to them. Written so late in the HIV pandemic, this may already be a questionable downplaying of the disruptive power of global disease outbreaks. Post-COVID, will scholars continue to think that this level of attention is adequate?[3]

A dead victim of cholera at Sunderland (1832), reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Alfred W. Crosby named the 1918 influenza outbreak America’s Forgotten Pandemic (1976) but, no, really, that’s cholera’s fate. The historiographic loss is not just about the disease. The early republic has been largely explained as if a major source of human distress and preoccupation—within the United States and beyond—was somehow not there. In evaluating cholera’s historiography in 2013, Whooley noted that, just as “Rosenberg’s seminal study . . . explores the secularization of American society by showing how the understanding of cholera evolved from the scourge of the sinful to a consequence of remedial faults in sanitation,” so scholars of Europe “have used cholera as a lens to examine a number of issues,” including politics, class divisions, and cultural practices. Studies of cholera in nineteenth-century Canada, India, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America have likewise used the disease to interrogate imperialism and racism. If they ignore cholera, can scholars of the early republic claim to comprehend power, racism, urban growth, commercial connections, identity and affect, public culture, immigration and nativism, or ideas about the body?[4]

Like nothing else, pandemics disclose deadly faultlines within and among nations. COVID-19 has intersected, painfully, with all the current social, political, racist, and economic divisions in the United States. And these intersections reveal the United States to be deficient, compared with other nations, in its effective response. Scholars of the early republic should more fully acknowledge the nation’s first experiences of pandemic disease. Ignoring that experience endorses false faith that the United States, exceptional by nature, might be immune to certain kinds of suffering. We cannot possibly still believe this.

(This Roundtable will continue with essays by Keith A. Wailoo, Sari Altschuler, Julie L. Reed, and Charles E. Rosenberg. Professor Chaplin is grateful to these colleagues for accepting her invitation to write for the Panorama, and to Will Mackintosh for his initial suggestion that she write something for the Panorama.)


[1] Christopher Hamlin, Cholera: The Biography (Oxford, UK, 2009), 4; Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, with a new afterword (Chicago, 1987), 20‒26, 36; Owen Whooley, Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, 2013), 35 (mortality statistics); New York City COVID-19 fatalities as of 9/7/20, and the city’s total population as of 2019, .

[2] Richard Adler, Cholera in Detroit: A History (Jefferson, NC, Inc., 2013). The fourth and fifth books (which include cholera in one chapter) appear to be versions of the same book: William E. Watson and J. Francis Watson, Massacre at Duffy’s Cut: Tragedy and Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad (Charleston, SC, 2018); Watson and Watson, The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad(Westport, CT, 2006). Under the keyword search “cholera,” Rosenberg (1962) appears with multiple works on other parts of the world, plus two on the United States: a museum exhibit catalog, R. C. Kedzie, The Cholera in Kalamazoo (1961); and a monograph, J. S. Chambers, The Conquest of Cholera. America’s Greatest Scourge (1938). Two contributions beyond the bounds of the early republic should be mentioned: Cholera on the American Continents, ed. A. F. Pestana de Castro and W. F. Almeida (Washington, DC, 1993); Howard Markel, Quarantine!: East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892 (Baltimore, 1997). The last consulted Sept. 8, 2020.

[3] James Z. Schwartz, “ʻA Melancholy and Trying Season’: Cholera and the Conflict over Cultural Boundaries in Early Michigan,” Journal of the Early Republic 26 (Spring 2006), 95‒116; Adam Jortner, “Cholera, Christ, and Jackson: The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins of Christian Politics in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic 27 (Summer 2007), 233‒64; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815‒1848(New York, 2007), two full paragraphs on cholera on 469‒70, references back to it on 472‒73, 540, 817, 823, all listed under the index heading “diseases and epidemics”; Howe cites Rosenberg and includes The Cholera Years in his “Bibliographical Essay.” However brief, Howe’s attention to cholera is in contrast to Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815‒1840 (Baltimore, 1995), which mentions the disease only once, in a paragraph (p. 183) on President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to set aside a day of fasting and prayer during the first U.S. outbreak of cholera; Feller has an index heading on “medicine” but none on disease or epidemics or cholera, and he does not cite Rosenberg.

[4] Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (New York, 1989), originally published as Epidemic and Peace, 1918 (Westport CT, 1976); Whooley, Knowledge in the Time of Cholera, 23.

21 September 2020

About the Author

Joyce E. Chaplin is James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University.

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