Presidential Politics in a Public Health Crisis: Cholera and the 1832 Election

Presidential Politics in a Public Health Crisis: Cholera and the 1832 Election

Over the hubbub of presidential campaigning glided the specter of disease. “A short time since there was an excitement about the election,” reflected a resident of New Orleans in November 1832, “but now we hear nothing but sickness and death.”[1] As modern-day Americans anticipate voting amid a pandemic, some have looked to history for parallels. The 1918 midterm elections offer one precedent, but another can be found in 1832, when Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Wirt vied for the presidency during the nation’s first major cholera outbreak.

As cholera spread swiftly through the United States, newspaper editors published regular updates like this one to chart the startling surge in new cases and deaths.

Cholera, which remains a dangerous killer in parts of the modern world, is a terrifying disease. Observers in 1832 regularly saw healthy people suddenly struck down by horrific symptoms, including agonizing muscle cramps and profuse, watery diarrhea. Some died within hours. Cholera’s spread through contaminated food and water was not yet understood. Many Americans doubted that it was contagious. Instead, they attributed it to such dissolute habits as alcohol abuse, gluttony, and slovenliness, and regarded the sickness as a moral scourge rather than a biological menace. And as the malady spread from northeastern cities across the continent in the summer and fall of 1832, it became entangled with presidential politics in a variety of ways.[2]

A few pundits insisted that politics had become unimportant. Cholera, opined a Massachusetts writer in late spring, “will soon deaden or swallow up all interest on topics of minor consequence,” including all the leading political issues. Tariffs, Jackson’s clash with the Second Bank of the United States, and even the presidential contest “diminish in importance, when compared with the ravages of a devastating pestilence.”[3] Newspaper editors certainly followed cholera closely, printing endless columns that seem strikingly familiar: daily updates on new cases and deaths, suggestions for home therapies (everything from ginger tea to generous doses of cold water, applied internally and externally), and warnings against complacency.[4]

Even as they crowded their columns with cholera news, however, few journalists ignored politics. Instead, the stories intermingled as cholera entered the political idiom as a shared reference point and a readily recognizable metaphor. Some partisans wielded cholera as a rhetorical weapon. The leading Jacksonian newspaper, the Washington Globe, accused the Bank of the United States—whose recharter bill Jackson had recently vetoed—for interfering in the election by financing opposition campaigners. The Bank was “showering its loans, its gold and bribes, with all the malignant devastation of the Asiatic Cholera.”[5] Such rhetoric, especially when it alluded to victims of the devastating disease, could easily become distasteful. Certainly, the Bostonian who likened the struggles of Jackson supporters to “the spasms of a cholera patient” could have crafted a different metaphor to mock his political foes.[6]

Henry Clay made his second presidential run in 1832. His reputation for card-playing and carousing notwithstanding, Clay appealed directly to evangelical Christian voters.

Cholera assumed even greater political significance when it became entangled with religion. As the disease ravaged New York City, the Dutch Reformed Synod urged civil authorities, including President Jackson, to proclaim a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. As historian Adam Jortner has shown, Jackson’s refusal—grounded in constitutional scruples about church and state—afforded his rivals a fresh line of attack. Kentucky senator and presidential candidate Henry Clay courted pious voters by introducing his own fast day resolution in Congress, a move which helped recruit evangelicals into the anti-Jackson coalition that would later become the Whig Party.[7]

Cholera also disrupted electioneering efforts. Presidential candidates were expected not to canvass for themselves, but their armies of supporters had to navigate the disease-ridden campaign trail. After a group of Virginia Jacksonians scattered to avoid cholera’s sweep through Charlottesville, many of them sat out a local convention held to endorse Martin Van Buren as Jackson’s running mate. The sparsely attended meeting drew ridicule from critics who denied that it reflected the popular will.[8]

The election’s approach prompted fears that voting-day activities might cause a spike in cholera cases—but not always for the reasons we might assume. New Orleans papers warned voters against “crowding around the polls at the election,” but did not name a specific hazard.[9] From North Carolina came a clearer rationale: antebellum elections, famous for drinking, feasting, and carousing, featured many of the behaviors widely associated with cholera’s curse. Bacchanalia, not bacteria, was the danger, and the North Carolina editor cautioned that election day “indulgences” could be “speedily followed by the breaking out of the Cholera.”[10]

Despite these anxieties, there was little speculation about cholera’s potential impact on the election results. But after Jackson prevailed by a large margin, retrospective analysis did suggest that the disease had some effect. Indeed, even before the presidential contest, cholera-related economic disruption had already shaped local elections. The “stagnation in trade,” opined one analyst of Philadelphia’s city elections, had induced some tradesmen and shopkeepers to vote against Jacksonian candidates. “A community in a state of alarm for their [financial] support,” he noted, “readily change their political opinions,” in this case by becoming more favorable to the Bank of the United States.[11]

Temperance campaigns gained traction in the 1830s, as did crusades for diet reform, such as the one promoted by Sylvester Graham. Both flourished after the 1832 cholera epidemic, which was widely blamed on intemperate dietary and drinking habits.

When contemporaries studied cholera’s influence on the presidential election, most analysts focused on slumping voter turnout. Clay supporters in Madison County, Indiana, attributed their disappointing showing to low turnout in the county seat, where Clay had many supporters, and blamed cholera for keeping town-dwellers from the polls.[12] More dramatic was the impact in Louisiana, where cholera struck just before election day. Fears of the disease reduced voter participation in New Orleans from around 1500 in 1828 to only 919 in 1832.[13] No returns came at all from nearby St. Bernard Parish, where cholera alarm had closed the polls entirely.[14] Cholera did not change the election outcome, but its disruptive impact struck certain locales with particular force.

Jackson’s tumultuous second term, particularly his “war” on the Bank of the United States, soon overshadowed the cholera epidemic, which has received little attention from political historians. But nineteenth-century Americans could not forget about the horrid disease, even if they wanted to. Cholera returned periodically for several more decades, ravaging cities, scourging the Oregon Trail, and, in 1849, killing ex-president James K. Polk, the Jackson protégé who bore the nickname “Young Hickory.”

[1] Letter dated November 2, 1832, in Salem Gazette, reprinted in the Portsmouth (NH) Journal and Rockingham Gazette, November 24, 1832.

[2] For an overview of the epidemic, see Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 ([1962] Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 13-100.

[3] “The Cholera,” Salem (MA) Gazette, June 19, 1832.

[4] See, respectively: “The Pestilence,” (Charles Town, VA) Free Press, August 30, 1832; “Caution against Cholera,” (Charles Town, VA) Free Press, October 18, 1832; “Novel Cure for the Cholera,” (Alexandria, VA) Phenix Gazette, August 30, 1832; (Tallahassee) Floridian, November 6, 1832.

[5] “The Bank Against Jackson,” Washington Globe, October 16, 1832.

[6] “Political Prospects,” Boston Daily Advertiser, reprinted in the Portsmouth (NH) Journal and Rockingham Gazette, September 28, 1832.

[7] Adam Jortner, “Cholera, Christ, and Jackson: The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins of Christian Politics in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 233-264.

[8] “The Charlottesville ‘Junta,’” Richmond Enquirer, October 30, 1832.

[9] “Dreadful Mortality at New Orleans,” Richmond Enquirer, November 23, 1832.

[10] Fayetteville (NC) Observer, August 7, 1832.

[11] Washington Globe, October 3, 1832.

[12] “Indiana,” Washington National Intelligencer, November 17, 1832.

[13] “Elections,” Richmond Enquirer, November 27, 1832.

[14] “Louisiana Election,” (Concord) New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, December 10, 1832; “Louisiana,” Washington Globe, November 28, 1832.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

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