In the summer of 1793, the nation’s largest city, Philadelphia, found itself consumed by panic and disease. Yellow Fever began to sweep through the city. From the first weeks of August through much of November, previously healthy people became ill, and the most afflicted saw their skin turn yellow from jaundice. Up to half of those poor souls died, creating panic and fear not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the relatively new United States of America.
The science of the day did not provide too many answers. No one quite knew how it was passed from person to person nor were there any known cures. Thousands became ill and hundreds died. A third of the citizens fled Philadelphia, including the young secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a gentleman for whom I confess a certain fascination (cough…hamiltonlives.com…cough). Hamilton and his young bride fled to Albany and the home of Hamilton’s father-in-law, but they were stopped at the city’s edge by officials concerned about the disease entering Albany. Only after a 14-day quarantine, and after discarding their carriage, clothing, and other possessions, were the Hamiltons allowed to enter.
Local government tried to help. The state legislature suspended its session (sound familiar?) and special hospitals were set up. Banks suspended collection of notes due and the Post Office stayed open. But across the area, citizens faced roadblocks, police patrols, and quarantine. Gatherings were banned and the citizens were asked to shelter in place.
The Yellow Fever crisis of 1793 makes for fascinating reading. The primitive science of the day didn’t understand that the virus spread, not through person-to-person contact, but rather from the bite of an infected mosquito. With the first hard freeze of the Fall, the mosquitoes died and the fever passed.
I pondered the lessons of 1793 when I read a recent story in Colorado Politics.
It seems the Colorado Libertarian Party is not too impressed with our governor’s pleas to limit groups getting together to no more than 10, due to the current virus crisis. I’ve written many times before about my belief that we all have a libertarian streak, which varies by width depending on the situation. I believe in the admonition credited to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Homes, that your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins. The problem, of course, is figuring out where one’s nose actually starts.
The Founders were very clear that political speech — such as the type of speech heard at political conventions — is the most protected and vital type of speech there is. Therefore, one can reasonably argue that a political party should be free to conduct itself pretty much unfettered by government interference.
The Libertarians, with roughly 46,000 registered voters here in Colorado, had announced that they would hold their political convention the first weekend in April. They had planned on meeting in Glenwood Springs but were forced to move the convention to a Lakewood hotel after officials in Glenwood Springs issued an order banning such large meetings. The party estimated that around 100 people would have attended, far above the governor’s limit of 10. The convention would have had several events, including nominating candidates, panel discussions, speakers, and a Roaring ‘20s party. The chair of the Libertarians had denounced Polis’ orders as “draconian” and said such governmental orders fly in the face of the party’s basic principles. Therefore, the Libertarians had planned on going ahead with the Lakewood convention.
What a difference a few minutes makes. When I started this column about, oh, 15 minutes ago, the Libertarians were committed to still meeting. But as with so many things involving Corona, things change quickly, and the Libertarians have now canceled the in-person convention, though they appear pretty grouchy about it.
But as is often the case with Libertarians, they bring up important issues of freedom and order. While the current public health crisis is very real, is there a potentially greater danger in empowering elected officials to issue orders that limit the ability of potentially adversarial parties to meet? Could a future governor ban, say, the GOP from holding a convention because of a perceived public health threat? How free are we when free speech rights are threatened?
I don’t have an answer, which is fairly common in these missives. But the questions raised by the Colorado Libertarian Party could well prove to be increasingly important, not just for Colorado, but nationally, as we move into the fall. Might President Trump, for example, order the two major parties to not hold nominating conventions? That wouldn’t impact the GOP very much, given the president’s incumbency, but it could prove very damaging to the Dems. How about the actual upcoming Biden campaign? Could the virus give an incumbent an unfair advantage?
Free speech rights are always challenging, and perhaps the Colorado Libertarians are the canary in the coal mine for national politics. As we balance liberty and order, how do we balance freedom and safety? Now, if you will excuse me, I need to recount my supply of soup and hand sanitizer.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.