Americans experienced changes in both the quality and quantity of disasters in the post-revolutionary era. On the one hand, they were increasingly vulnerable to new categories of calamities, as fires and epidemics proliferated in the growing cities of the early republic. On the other hand, they inhabited a print-saturated environment in which such episodes were widely reported and sometimes assumed national significance. Focusing primarily on Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic in 1793 and fires in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Richmond, Virginia, this chapter addresses two related themes: how U.S. leaders envisioned the role of the state in disaster relief and how disaster stories contributed to the creation of an American national identity. It shows that by publicizing private philanthropic efforts that arose in response to disasters, print culture encouraged readers to see themselves as virtuous and charitable, even as their government rejected the British model of state-sponsored humanitarian aid, and that by chronicling the suffering of individuals, increasingly sensational accounts encouraged readers to see disasters as personal tragedies rather than public problems.
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