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The Contagious City

The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia

by Simon Finger

Publication Year: 2012

By the time William Penn was planning the colony that would come to be called Pennsylvania, with Philadelphia at its heart, Europeans on both sides of the ocean had long experience with the hazards of city life, disease the most terrifying among them. Drawing from those experiences, colonists hoped to create new urban forms that combined the commercial advantages of a seaport with the health benefits of the country. The Contagious City details how early Americans struggled to preserve their collective health against both the strange new perils of the colonial environment and the familiar dangers of the traditional city, through a period of profound transformation in both politics and medicine.

Philadelphia was the paramount example of this reforming tendency. Tracing the city's history from its founding on the banks of the Delaware River in 1682 to the yellow fever outbreak of 1793, Simon Finger emphasizes the importance of public health and population control in decisions made by the city's planners and leaders. He also shows that key figures in the city's history, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, brought their keen interest in science and medicine into the political sphere. Throughout his account, Finger makes clear that medicine and politics were inextricably linked, and that both undergirded the debates over such crucial concerns as the city's location, its urban plan, its immigration policy, and its creation of institutions of public safety. In framing the history of Philadelphia through the imperatives of public health, The Contagious City offers a bold new vision of the urban history of colonial America.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-xii

...When I began the work that would become The Contagious City, I was trying to solve a problem of collective action: How do communities respond to shared dangers? I did not want to plow the well-furrowed ground of Indian-European conflict or imperial rivalry, and after some consideration I realized that disease presented a threat that easily rivaled tomahawk and musket...

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pp. xiii-xvi

...As The Contagious City first took shape, Peter Silver’s thoughtful criticism helped me focus my questions, rethink my assumptions, and finally finish my work. John Murrin, Barbara Oberg, and David Barnes can also each take credit for at least one error avoided, one argument clarified, and the entire Philadelphia possesses fantastic archival resources, both in holdings and ...

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Introduction: Epidemic Constitutions

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pp. 1-6

...In 1777, Pierre Nicole was a captain of the guards in the British army, stationed in occupied Philadelphia. The clever Swiss-born officer was “well-acquainted with the Country and with the people,” which made him an effective liaison between the army and the area’s covert loyalist population. It also made him the capable cartographer and draftsman who, under the...

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1. “A Rude Place and an Unpolisht Man” : William Penn and the Nature of Pennsylvania

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pp. 7-20

...When Pennsylvania was in its planning stages, William Petty was one of the many figures to offer William Penn advice on establishing his new colony. Petty was in the process of developing a mode of inquiry he called “political arithmetick,” which explained national power in demographic terms. In keeping with that premise, he suggested that Penn plant the future...

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2. “An Infancy of Government” : Population, Authority, and the Problem of Proprietorship

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pp. 21-32

...When he was still hopeful about the future of his infant province, William Penn reminded his councilors that it was not “wealth or trade that Makes a government great,” but “sobriety, Peace, temperance, labour and equal administration.” Pennsylvania’s “climat [was] as fitt” for those qualities “as any other in the world,” but atmospheres alone could not guarantee the...

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3. “A Suitable Charity or an Effectual Security” : Community, Contagion, and the Care of Strangers

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pp. 33-56

...The earliest Pennsylvania settlers worried about whether they would trans-form the environment before it transformed them, and by the early eighteenth century, most were confident that they had. But as Philadelphia expanded, its established population faced a new question: Would they be able to remain Pennsylvanian in the face of shifting demographics, or would ...

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4. “A Body Corporate and Politick” : Association, Interest, and Improvement in a Provincial City

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pp. 57-75

...Philadelphia never had been a “green country towne,” and by the middle of the eighteenth century, a variety of factors placed Pennsylvania “upon the growing hand, more than any of the provinces of America.” As hub of the regional economy and heart of the colonial print culture, the Quaker city fostered the intellectual and social ferment that made it the...

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5. “Improvement in Every Part of the Healing Art” : Transatlantic Cultures of Medical Improvement

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pp. 76-85

...As medical men became self-conscious agents of reform in a broader social context, they came to view their ambit as encompassing nearly the whole of the world. They launched ambitious collaborative investigations into natural philosophy, pursuing knowledge that they promised would benefit all humankind. As these far-flung but closely linked researchers sought out ...

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6. “A Fine Field for Professional Improvement” : Sites and Sources of Medical Authority in the Revolutionary War

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pp. 86-102

...When General Howe’s army descended upon the revolutionary capital, “great numbers” of wounded Continental troops swarmed into Philadelphia, leaving a scattered trail of “hundreds of their muskets laying in the road,” dropped by the fallen and the fleeing. Elizabeth Drinker recalled that in the days that followed, she heard nothing but “carriages constantly...

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7. “In a Yielding State” : Nervous Nationalism in the New Republic

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pp. 103-119

...As the nation recovered from war, Rush and his cohort returned to a Philadelphia damaged, dirty, and growing. They were full of projects to improve both city and nation and optimistic that they would succeed. “In America,” Rush proclaimed, “everything is new and yielding. Here genius and benevolence may have full scope. Here the benefactor of mankind may realize all...

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8. “Those Friendly Reciprocities” : Panic and Participation in the Age of Yellow Fever

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pp. 120-134

...At the end of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia found itself in the grip of an implacable horror, wracked by “the hurricane of the human frame.” Yellow fever loomed like the storm, “equally uncertain in its recurrence, equally dark and inscrutable in its cause, equally and deplorably certain as to the reality of its existence.” In 1793, it struck for the first time in thirty ...

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9. “A Matter of Police” : Fever and Betrayal in the Federal Union

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pp. 134-152

...In April 1796, Congressman Samuel Smith of Maryland introduced a bill to grant the president discretion over quarantine policy throughout the union, opening a grueling argument over the proper borders of state and federal power. Toward the end of the debate, North Carolina’s James Holland rose to argue that, like citizens in a community, the states were best equipped to administer local quarantines...

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Conclusion: Looking West from Philadelphia

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pp. 153-162

...In the spring of 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent his secretary Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for the journey he would begin the next year with William Clark and the Corps of Discovery. In many ways, the city’s prominence was waning. New York was already supplanting it as the nation’s commercial and financial center..


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pp. 163-218


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pp. 219-226

E-ISBN-13: 9780801464003
E-ISBN-10: 0801464005
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801448935
Print-ISBN-10: 080144893X

Page Count: 226
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1