As the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Florida spike, Republicans are blaming immigrants and Black citizens to distract from their own malfeasance managing the pandemic. While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are the latest politicians to stir up anti-minority sentiment for political purposes, they are not the first. In 1793, Federalists adopted a similar tactic and blamed a yellow fever outbreak on immigration. Seven years later, the Federalist Party was soundly defeated in national elections — largely because of their anti-immigrant policies.
History suggests the same fate could await Republicans.
18th-century political squabbling
In 1793, a particularly deadly outbreak of yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia, the nation’s temporary capital. Five thousand people, or roughly 10% of the city’s population, died during the outbreak. The city was so overwhelmed that officials placed coffins in nearby alleys so that they would be available when patients died.
Yellow fever is caused when an infected mosquito bites a human. In the 18th century, the disease existed year-round in warm-weather regions, like parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and New Orleans. As a result, many residents developed immunity and mothers often passed down the required antibodies to their children. However, in Northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore that experience deep freezes, the disease emerged only sporadically and as a result often swept across the susceptible population, killing thousands.
Eighteenth-century Americans didn’t understand the science behind the disease, but that didn’t stop them from developing hypotheses. Two competing theories developed to explain the outbreak, with supporters often choosing sides based on their political identity. Federalists accused people arriving from the Caribbean and Africa of bringing the disease from foreign shores, whereas Democratic-Republicans blamed the unhealthy conditions in cities for spreading the pandemic.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these arguments reflected the partisan views of each party. Federalist support congregated on the coast and in urban areas where merchants and banks flourished, whereas farmers in the western regions and recent immigrants from France, the Caribbean, and Ireland voted for Democratic-Republicans. Each side attacked the other’s voter base to explain the outbreak.
Both were right to some degree. Outbreaks were often triggered when ships carrying infected mosquitoes arrived from the Caribbean to trade in eastern ports. Once the mosquitoes arrived, they happily bred and multiplied in the standing water that lingered on unpaved streets without sewers, and in the filthy water around the crumbling wharves in the Philadelphia port.
No excuses for today’s Republicans
While Federalists’ concerns about the physical import of disease in the 1700s at least had some factual basis, the same can’t be said for DeSantis and Patrick. Florida doesn’t share a border with Mexico, rendering DeSantis’ claims entirely without merit. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine, dismissed DeSantis’ argument: “Given the extensive transmission already in the U.S., the immigration contribution is akin to pouring a bucket of water into a swimming pool.” In the Texas case, Patrick has blamed the recent outbreak on unvaccinated Black Americans. The facts resoundingly disprove Patrick’s claim, as unvaccinated white Texans outnumber unvaccinated Black Texans 3-1.
But the Federalists too spread xenophobia, and actively pursued policies and legislation that undermined immigrants’ rights. In 1798, Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which increased the number of years of residence required for citizenship from five to 14 years, permitted the president to detain and export alien residents of enemy countries, and made it a crime to “print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the federal government.
Federalists defended these bills as necessary to prevent political violence and anarchy that they feared would be sparked by lies printed in partisan newspapers. In reality, the bills made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, and therefore harder for immigrants to vote. The Sedition Acts targeted the most outspoken and critical newspaper editors, many of whom were also immigrants.
The backlash against the bills was immediate and sustained until the election in the fall of 1800. Both Democratic-Republican candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, beat Federalist John Adams in the presidential election. Democratic-Republicans also took control of the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time. The losses were so significant that the Federalist Party would never again control the presidency or either house of Congress.
DeSantis and Patrick are making the same calculations as the Federalists in 1798. They know that nonwhite voters are more likely to support Democrats, and they are hoping to avert attention from their own failures by fear-mongering and ginning up racist sentiment. It’s a gamble. Both Florida and Texas have growing minority populations with ties to the Black and immigrant communities. Hopefully voters in these states will reject the hateful rhetoric, just as voters did in 1800.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D., is a presidential historian and senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is also the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. @lmchervinsky.