The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

Advertisements

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It: Tobacco & Politics in the 1700s

Colonial American.  Think about that term.  What does it mean to you?  It refers to citizens of the American colonies prior to the Revolution.  In the minds of many of us in the present-day United States, however, it might denote a unique American identity, probably because our own identities as Americans are firmly set and celebrated.  But what if I told you that most of these colonial Americans considered themselves to be loyal British subjects for much of the colonial period and proudly displayed objects that confirmed their loyalty?

One such object discovered at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is a small fragment from a white clay smoking pipe bowl.  The design on this tiny fragment includes a small harp and the letters “Mon D…”.

Pipe Bowl Fragment

Pipe bowl fragment excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Sometimes in archaeology we have genuine ‘Ah Ha!’ moments and, for me, this was one such instance.  I grew up with a suncatcher – a gift from an English family friend — in my bedroom that featured a rearing unicorn above the words ‘Mon Droit.

Suncatcher

I loved that suncatcher and, when I saw the pipe fragment, I recognized what the design was right away.  It was the British royal coat of arms!

On pipe bowls like the one unearthed at Ferry Farm, the coat of arms wrapped around three quarters of the circular bowl. A lion, shield, and unicorn each filled their own quarter of the bowl above the full French phrase “Dieu Et Mon Droit” or “God and my right,” a claim that the right of the British monarch to govern was divine in nature.  This phrase has a long history in England.  It was first used as a battle cry by Richard I in the 12th century and picked up as a royal motto by King Henry V, who lived from 1386-1422.  The use of the French language for an English motto may seem odd but French was very fashionable and the official language of the English court.

British Royal Coat of Arms

The British royal coat of arms from 1714-1800 during the Hanover dynasty. Credit:  Sodacan/Wikipedia

It is doubtful that anyone living at Ferry Farm after the America Revolution wanted to advertise their loyalty to the British crown so we can safely say this pipe was probably used between 1714, when the Hanover dynasty began under George I, and, at the latest, the 1770s. During most of this time period, the Washington family lived at Ferry Farm.The royal coat of arms is full of important symbols.  Grasping the center shield is a lion signifying England and a unicorn representing Scotland.  On the shield’s lower left is a harp symbolizing Ireland. The harp is clearly identifiable on the pipe fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.  The lower right section of the shield includes a columned monument and another lion. These symbols were added during the House of Hanover’s reign.  Monarchs regularly changed the coat of arms as each new king or queen sought to make their mark on the official emblem.  The monument and small lion were included on the shield to denote the Hanovers’ rule over their territory in what is now Germany.  The fragment found at Ferry Farm also contains these elements indicating that it was manufactured between 1714 and 1800.

139_Masonic_pipe_NO_SCALE

Pipes featured more than political symbols. This is a 3D image of another smoking pipe bowl excavated at Ferry Farm decorated with a Masonic symbol. The pipe was probably made in the northeast of England between 1770-1810. You can read more about this pipe here.

Why is this pipe fragment a big deal?  During the 18th century, smoking a pipe with a political symbol like the one we’ve found was the equivalent of slapping a candidate’s bumper sticker on your car, placing a political party’s sign in your yard, or sharing a favorite political meme on social media. The act was public, deliberate, and did not go without notice. The practice continued well into the 1800s when groups such as the Irish employed smoking pipes to advertise their support for causes such as a free Ireland.  It was a way to signal identity to others.

During most of the colonial period in America, aligning yourself with the crown was not at all radical but rather what was expected of most subjects.  In fact, this pipe bowl fragment is not the only artifact excavated at Ferry Farm to hint at past occupants’ loyalty to Britain.  As noted in a previous blog, we have found several drinking vessels exhibiting the initials ‘G.R.’ for ‘George Rex’ or King George.  In another blog, we also discussed an artifact uncovered at Ferry Farm that points toward a growing resistance to the British crown. This mid-18th century sleeve button depicts William III, who, although he died decades before the button was manufactured, came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.

What we may be seeing in these three types of artifacts present at Ferry Farm is a fundamental shift of views within the Washington family as the political climate changed throughout the 1700s.  The objects hint at a swing from loyal British subjects to revolutionaries and the beginning of our identity as independent Americans.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist