My father was seven years old in 1902. He had eight brothers and sisters ranging from my aunt Ida who was fourteen years old to his sister Selma who was just six weeks old. That year, 1902, was probably the most significant year of my father’s life. It was the year his father, my grandfather, died of typhoid fever. When he was in his 80’s my dad’s eyes would still fill with tears as he recounted his father’s death. My grandfather’s death was shortly followed by the death of my dad’s two-year-old brother, also of typhoid. A sister died a few years later of whooping cough. These events changed my father’s entire life.
I was doing some research on my family’s history and wanted to know more about the typhoid outbreak that took my grandfather’s life. I thought, “Surely a typhoid outbreak would have some historical significance and there would be some record of it.” I was wrong. In 1902 typhoid deaths were not uncommon. At the turn of the century, 100 people out of every 100,000 would get the often fatal disease. My grandfather’s death was not unique. As our country grew, cities sprang up without much planning. Water was pumped from the nearest river or from wells. Sewage was pumped into the same rivers. Outhouses were dug to close to the wells. Floods contaminated wells. People didn’t understand the need for hand washing and cleanliness in food preparation. Most didn’t understand how bacteria caused infection and how diseases were spread. My grandfather was infected by a carrier who, like Typhoid Mary in New York, did not know she could make others sick.
By 1920 the number of typhoid cases in the United States had dropped to 33.8 per 100,000 population. In 1950 the rate was 1.7 cases. In fifty years public health efforts which focused on improving water treatment, sewage handling and education about sanitation and hygiene reduced the death rate from infectious diseases like typhoid to almost zero. This reduction in early death is responsible for a large percentage of the increased life expectancy in this country and around the world.
The implementation of water treatment, sewage treatment, health regulations and health education were all a result of government. It was the efforts of public officials and taxes which created systems of clean water and sanitary food handling which made deaths like my grandfather’s a rare occurrence. Private enterprises might have been able to do the same thing, but none did.
It is tempting to want to return to an earlier time when life was simpler and government smaller and taxes were minimal. While there is no doubt that our system of government needs improvement, wanting to return to the government of the Founding Fathers is not realistic.
In 1800 when Thomas Jefferson was president, the US Census indicated there were 5.3 million people living in this country. The 2010 Census indicated there are now 308.7 million living here. In Jefferson’s day, typhoid, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, small pox and other infectious diseases killed vast numbers of people. There were no rules about how close the outhouse could be to a well, no requirements that sewage not be drained into the river, no rules about waitresses washing their hands. Roads were not paved. Streets were not lit. Garbage was not picked up. There were no child labor laws, no food safety regulations. There were few regulations burdening business, but life was not easier for most Americans.
Returning to the simplicity of those early days of our country is not possible. Our world is not the same. Our country is not the same. It is not possible for more than 300 million of us to live together in this country without government or even government like that practiced by our Founding Fathers.
Our problems won’t be solved by ignoring the great things we have accomplished by working together for the common good and focusing only on the things we have failed to do. Dismantling government, abolishing taxes and programs which promote the health, education and well-being of the country as a whole will not result in a more stable democracy.
It is a fantasy to think that competition and the free market could or would have done the things we have accomplished together.
Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains