At the time, it was a standard and orthodox belief that any disease was divine punishment. Cholera was supposedly “a rod in the hand of God,” smiting the atheist, the sinner and the non-Protestant immigrant. The suffering was a rebuke and a call to repent. Individuals and communities were, accordingly, told to fast and pray. City officials and state governors received petitions from churches and citizens’ groups to enact days for public prayer and fasting, and many places complied, including at least 11 states.
Despite attempts to convince Jackson to declare a national day of fasting and prayer, he refused. In a widely reprinted letter of June 12, 1832, he agreed with “the efficacy of prayer” but stated that for the United States to have a national day devoted in any way to religion was “transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president,” a violation of the constitutional protection of freedom of religious belief, including lack of belief.
This was unorthodox. Three previous presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison had, by contrast, recommended fast days during earlier crises. Jackson was by no means an atheist. He was raised in a Presbyterian household and became a member of that denomination later in life. He also understood the dangers of contagious disease. His mother had died, in her early 40s, while nursing Revolutionary War soldiers, having caught “ship fever” from them, probably typhus.
But as a populist and anti-establishment politician, “Old Hickory” distrusted and opposed the college-educated clergy, who were established figures of authority in the 1830s. Jackson and his supporters in the Democratic Party caricatured them as the equivalent of the Catholic clergy ousted (temporarily) by the French revolutionaries: medieval, superstitious remnants who undermined modern democracy. To the Jacksonians, the clergy must, by definition, always be trying to unite church and state, against the clear admonition of the Constitution.
Jackson defied them, and because of that, encouraged growing public support for alternative solutions to epidemics. These included, for example, creating civic boards of health that, with doctors’ advice, would track contagion, disinfect public areas and declare and uphold quarantines. Not all these measures were appropriate against cholera, whose transmission was not yet well understood. But the shift toward secular and civic solutions to epidemics represented a trend that would eventually protect public health.
Here is Chaplin’s conclusion:
Whatever Jackson’s reasons for deriding college-educated clergymen, he endorsed the view that human governance of material forces is a secular business and requires action. President Trump may have made a point of hanging a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, but his recent actions make him more like Clay. He lacks personal piety but has called for prayer as a response to covid-19. Against the advice of public health experts, he stated a goal to “have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” as if a Christian holiday ought to mark time throughout the nation, before backing away in past few days. Old Hickory is on record as opposing pulling religion into the handling of a pandemic like this. It was an admirable example of how a national leader ought to address a public health crisis — way back in 1832.
Read the entire piece here.