Yellow fever outbreaks were frequent in the southern US in the late C18th. The 1793 Philadelphia epidemic was one of the most severe outbreaks of infectious disease in US history, killing 10% of the residents of the city and causing 40% to flee (more information on that outbreak here).

Some time ago, I remember reading that this epidemic played a significant role in the decision to move the capital from Philadelphia to Washington DC. Looking into it in more detail (I'd like to use it as an example in a forthcoming lecture), it sounds like it would be more accurate to say that the capital was already due to move to Washington DC as a result of the Residence Act of 1790, but that the Philadelphians were lobbying to reverse that decision during the 1790s, and ultimately the YF epidemic was a factor in their failure to get a reversal reconsidered.

There are more details on the move from Philadelphia to DC in this article by the US National Constitution Centre. However, the only place YF is mentioned , it simply states "a yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia in 1793, raising doubts about the safety of the area". It doesn't say who had those doubts, how we know about them or what actual effect they had, if any, on decisions about the move.

It seems plausible that such a massive public health problem could influence decisions on this topic if there was still any plausible chance of reversal, although it is equally apparent that there were other significant factors in favour of a move to DC.

Did the 1793 YF epidemic or (more broadly) the history of YF epidemics in the region affect any appeals regarding the move, or is there any evidence that public support for the move to DC was strengthened on the basis of the threat from YF?

  • Pennsylvania is hardly a southern state (nor is it tropical in climate). :) Your introductory paragraph could lose the first sentence without harming the question : indeed, it will be better if you remove it. Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 18:23

1 Answer 1


Not at all.

The decision to create a new capital at what we now know as Washington D.C. had been taken in 1790, three years before the yellow fever in Philadelphia. There were a couple reasons why the new republic wanted to move the capital from Philadelphia.

The first reason was that the republic wanted a capital closer to the center of the country on what was then a north-south axis (basically the 13 colonies). That meant further south.

The second reason was that they wanted a capital district (of Columbia) that was independent of any state. That ruled out existing cities. Instead, the founding fathers found a piece of land further south, on the border of Maryland and Virginia, that was considered "expendable" by the two states, on which to build a new capital from scratch.

The southerly move was a sop to the Southern states, who then agreed to allow the more heavily indebted northern states to transfer their Revolutionary War debts to the new Federal government. Given that such a deal had been "brokered" by Hamilton and Madison, it was a point of "no return" that did not allow for reconsideration of Philadelphia, the original capital.

It took until 1800 to actually build the capital, but that's a different story. The decision had been taken ten years earlier. A yellow fever epidemic in what was then three years in the future had nothing to do with the decision.

  • Although this is useful, it doesn't mention whether there were any attempts during the 1790s by Philadelphia to try and reverse the decision (either legal appeals or appeals to public opinion), and if so how these were affected by the epidemic. (I realise the Act was passed in 1790, but I'm not sure how Philadelphia responded.)
    – tardigrade
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 12:28
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    @tardigrade:I found a new link that explains why the decision had reached a "point of no return" in 1790 (new second to last paragraph).
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 15:10
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    Note also that DC is at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, and was in many ways an actual "Swamp" before it became known as a political one. IIRC, during Lincoln's and other administrations there were temporary exoduses from it due to epidemics. From a health point of view, DC would hardly have been more appealing.
    – user18963
    Commented Dec 4, 2017 at 15:55

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