Cholera occurs when humans accidentally consume the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, either by drinking tainted water or eating food grown or prepared with that water. Some people have a resistance to the bacterium, others a mild response. In the worst cases, however, infection results in disastrous torrents of diarrhea and vomiting, leading to dehydration and death. Originally from Asia, the bacterium followed routes of trade and empire out to the rest of the world in the early 19th century, resulting in four major pandemics: 1817-24, 1829-51, 1852-59, and 1860-75.
The United States escaped the first pandemic. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans were formidable protective barriers when wind-driven sailing ships were still the standard ways to reach North America. From 1831 onward, as reports of cholera’s impact on Europe flowed in, the country had time to prepare. New York City’s mayor stipulated a quarantine against most of Asia and Europe. But by the summer of 1832, the disease had spread to Quebec, Montreal and eventually New York. Soon, contagion followed commerce across the country. America’s expanding network of canals, steamboats and railroads carried cholera nearly everywhere. The largest commercial center of the early Republic, New York City, was hit hard, as was the Cotton South’s major metropolis, New Orleans, where 3,000 people would die.
At the time, it was a standard and orthodox belief that any disease was divine punishment. Cholera was supposedly “a rod in the hand of God,” smiting the atheist, the sinner and the non-Protestant immigrant. The suffering was a rebuke and a call to repent. Individuals and communities were, accordingly, told to fast and pray. City officials and state governors received petitions from churches and citizens’ groups to enact days for public prayer and fasting, and many places complied, including at least 11 states.
Despite attempts to convince Jackson to declare a national day of fasting and prayer, he refused. In a widely reprinted letter of June 12, 1832, he agreed with “the efficacy of prayer” but stated that for the United States to have a national day devoted in any way to religion was “transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president,” a violation of the constitutional protection of freedom of religious belief, including lack of belief.
This was unorthodox. Three previous presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had, by contrast, recommended fast days during earlier crises. Jackson was by no means an atheist. He was raised in a Presbyterian household and became a member of that denomination later in life. He also understood the dangers of contagious disease. His mother had died, in her early 40s, while nursing Revolutionary War soldiers, having caught “ship fever” from them, probably typhus.
But as a populist and anti-establishment politician, “Old Hickory” distrusted and opposed the college-educated clergy, who were established figures of authority in the 1830s. Jackson and his supporters in the Democratic Party caricatured them as the equivalent of the Catholic clergy ousted (temporarily) by the French revolutionaries: medieval, superstitious remnants who undermined modern democracy. To the Jacksonians, the clergy must, by definition, always be trying to unite church and state, against the clear admonition of the Constitution.
Jackson defied them, and because of that, encouraged growing public support for alternative solutions to epidemics. These included, for example, creating civic boards of health that, with doctors’ advice, would track contagion, disinfect public areas and declare and uphold quarantines. Not all these measures were appropriate against cholera, whose transmission was not yet well understood. But the shift toward secular and civic solutions to epidemics represented a trend that would eventually protect public health.
Jackson’s stated policy, declared in the election year, prompted opposition candidate Henry Clay, of the Whig Party, to rally political support among Protestant churches. Although Clay admitted he was himself an unbeliever, he introduced a resolution into Congress to enact a national day of fasting and prayer. Debate duly followed. (The House considered whether to modify the xenophobic description of cholera as “Asiatic,” but decided not to.) Jackson’s Democratic supporters accused the Whigs of using Congress as part of Clay’s presidential campaign. The Whigs responded by denouncing the Democrats as enemies of faith.
In the end, the fast-day resolution passed. The Senate’s roll-call votes were recorded, showing that every Clay supporter voted for the resolution, 20-0. The identifiable Jacksonians were divided, 12-9 against, with 5 abstaining. Clay won that round, with his success validating the place of religious belief in national politics. Calls for local fast days continued into the fall of 1832, some of them pitched explicitly against Jackson — as well as against cholera.
Jackson’s dissenting view, however, against the beliefs even within his own party, didn’t hurt him. In fact, the well-organized pro-Jackson press castigated Clay as a hypocrite, a dissolute atheist who promoted superstitious priestcraft for his ambitions. Jackson would defeat Clay in the presidential election.
There aren’t many good reasons to admire Andrew Jackson. He was an unabashed white supremacist who enslaved black people and pursued a military policy of genocide against indigenous Americans. His Indian Removal policy, defying the Supreme Court’s defense of indigenous land rights, assumed North America’s native peoples were doomed to extinction — Jackson made that centuries’ old prejudice into the law of the nation.
But scholars of medicine point out the United States was among the first modern nations to make clear, in its public health policies, that contagious disease was a hazard for all humans, not a divine judgment against some of them. Yes, the United States was once noteworthy for leading the world in public health policy, by relying on experts in the medical profession.
Whatever Jackson’s reasons for deriding college-educated clergymen, he endorsed the view that human governance of material forces is a secular business and requires action. President Trump may have made a point of hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, but his recent actions make him more like Clay. He lacks personal piety but has called for prayer as a response to covid-19. Against the advice of public health experts, he stated a goal to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” as if a Christian holiday ought to mark time throughout the nation, before backing away in past few days. Old Hickory is on record as opposing pulling religion into the handling of a pandemic like this. It was an admirable example of how a national leader ought to address a public health crisis — way back in 1832.