Biography and History

Richard Rush (August 29, 1780-July 30, 1859), lawyer, diplomat, and statesman, was born at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the second son and third child of the celebrated physician, Benjamin Rush, and Julia (Stockton) Rush. The boy grew up in a cultivated household and at the age of fourteen was ready for entrance into the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), from which his father and his maternal grandfather had graduated. In college he was the youngest member of his class, and, while not a distinguished student, showed great interest and ability in debating. After finishing his course he studied law in the office of William Lewis, a well-known legal luminary of Philadelphia, and was admitted to the bar in December 1800. His reputation as a speaker began to be established when in 1807 he made an eloquent speech on the sinking of the Chesapeake at the public meeting in the State House yard in Philadelphia. In 1808 he defended William Duane, the editor of the Aurora, against the charge of libel for an attack upon Governor Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, and thus made his first important political contacts. He refused, however, to be a candidate for Congress at this time.

In January 1811, he was appointed attorney-general of Pennsylvania, the beginning of nearly twenty years of uninterrupted office-holding. An ardent Republican, he warmly opposed the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States, and in November, having attracted the favorable attention of President Madison, to whom he long remained devoted, he became comptroller of the treasury. On July 4, 1812, the administration put him forward to defend the war with Great Britain in an address at Washington. Rush's temperament, in general, was not belligerent, and the cool and objective character of his mind was ill-suited to whipping up the war-spirit. The speech is almost apologetic in tone, far too argumentative to be a great war speech, but it seemed to be well received, and encouraged him to more political pronouncements, which helped to make him better known. In February 1814, he was offered the choice of the offices of secretary of the treasury, or of attorney-general, and chose the latter. In this post he was charged with the duty of editing the Laws of the United States from 1789 to 1815 (5 vols., 1815), which he performed in authoritative fashion. On the inauguration of Monroe, Rush was made secretary of state, pending the return of John Quincy Adams from Europe to assume that office. In this capacity, he negotiated the famous Rush-Bagot convention (April 28, 1817), establishing a limitation of naval armaments on the Great Lakes, one of the earliest treaties of this kind in the history of the United States. On October 31, 1817, he was appointed minister to Great Britain.

Rush was undoubtedly amongst the most efficient and best liked of American ministers to the Court of St. James. A man of high breeding, emphatically a gentleman, he moved with ease in the British society of the period, and his genuine regard for the British people, coupled with wide intellectual interests and a tact that was almost unfailing, gave him a wide measure of success. He was confronted with a great variety of difficult problems at the very outset, a number of important disputes with Great Britain left over by the War of 1812 not having yet been liquidated. These included the fisheries question, the matter of compensation for the slaves carried off by the British in the war, and the troublesome problem of the northwest boundary. The convention of October 20, 1818, did not really settle all of these, only the question of the slaves being put in the way of a final solution. But Rush negotiated a treaty of joint occupation of Oregon which served as a basis of understanding for nearly thirty years, and he secured important concessions on the fisheries problem. In 1819 he dealt with great wisdom with the issue raised by Andrew Jackson's recent invasion of Florida, and the execution of two British subjects, Ambrister and Arbuthnot. British public opinion was exceedingly inflamed, and Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, afterwards told the minister that war might have been brought about if he had but lifted a finger ( Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London, 1845, p. 152). In his conversations with Castlereagh, Rush set forward the American point of view with remarkable candor, and yet without offense. His description of his interview with Castlereagh on this occasion may be regarded as a model of diplomatic manners.

Rush played an important role in diplomatic negotiations which led up to the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine. In the summer of 1823, French troops had invaded Spain, and George Canning, the British foreign secretary, had received certain intimations from Sir Charles Stuart, the British minister in Paris, with regard to a projected congress on the affairs of South America. Suspecting that such a congress might pave way for the re-conquest of the Spanish colonies, Canning asked if it might not be possible for Rush to join him in a joint prohibition of such action. Rush had, of course, no instructions. After carefully pondering the matter, he decided that he could not accept the proposal, barring British recognition of the independence of the colonies. When Canning stated his inability to act on this basis, Rush, despite new and pressing overtures from Canning, refused to commit himself. The dispatches which he wrote in August and September 1823 were an important factor in persuading James Monroe and John Quincy Adams to take the strong stand which they assumed in the memorable message of December 2. The message was not well received in England. In particular, that part of it (directed against Russia in the northwest, and not concerned with the Spanish colonies) which forbade new colonization by European powers in the American hemisphere, was most unacceptable to Canning. Rush had to do what he could to defend it, and, acting under instructions, he brought it forward in the new discussions on the northwest question which took place in 1824. He did not, however, succeed in persuading the British commissioners to acquiesce in it.

In the course of his long stay in England, Rush examined many different aspects of British institutions. He made a special study of the British navy, and it was his desire, when John Quincy Adams became president in 1825, that he might become secretary of the navy in the new administration. At Adams' insistence however, he accepted the office of secretary of the treasury, and discharged the duties of this post with extraordinary fidelity, never having been absent from office a single day in the course of four years, except for one week's illness. In this period of his life he was a protectionist, though of a rather mild type. He was no doubt partly influenced by the opinion of his state, and also apparently by the infant industry argument. He desired, however, to institute a warehouse and drawback system, not unlike that which existed in Great Britain. He played no prominent part in connection with the tariff of abominations in 1828, but does not seem to have been hostile to that measure. In 1828 he accepted a place on the ticket with John Quincy Adams, as a candidate for vice-president, but went down to a crushing defeat with the rise of Jacksonian Democracy. At this period came one of Rush's rare lapses from the urbanity which was characteristic of him. On his appointment to the Treasury, he had been the object of a slashing attack by John Randolph, who stigmatized his appointment as the worst since Caligula had made his horse a consul (Powhatan Bouldin, Home Reminiscences of John Randolph, of Roanoke, 1878, p. 317). Rush was stung by this, and other attacks, into publishing under the pen name of Julius an attack upon Randolph, splenetic in the extreme. He declared his willingness to avow his authorship, and accept a challenge to a duel, if Randolph cared to take the pains to look into the matter (Julius, John Randolph, Abroad and at Home, 1828, p. 13).

For some years after 1828 Rush was in private life. In 1829 he was sent abroad by the towns of Georgetown and Alexandria and the city of Washington to negotiate a loan of one and a half million dollars for the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Received with considerable coolness in Great Britain, despite his many personal friendships there, he finally succeeded in getting very favorable terms from the Dutch bank of the Cromelines. His efforts were not as gratefully received as he thought they should have been by those who sent him. In the Anti-Masonic agitation Rush took a prominent part, and he was the first choice of the new political group for the presidency. He declined to run, however. The struggle over the Bank in 1832 brought him back into the Democratic party. He sympathized strongly with President Jackson on this issue. In 1835, together with General Benjamin Chew Howard of Baltimore, he was commissioned to settle a boundary dispute between the states of Ohio and Michigan, which threatened to result in an appeal to force. He succeeded in preventing an armed clash, though not in settling the question. In the summer of 1836 he sailed for England to secure the Smithson bequest to the United States. James Smithson, an Englishman, had died without issue, and had left the whole of his estate, on the death of a nephew, to the United States. The estate had become tied up in the chancery court, however, and it required much time and patience to liquidate the matter. Rush conducted his mission with efficiency and patience, and made use of his stay in Great Britain to resume many old connections, and to make new ones ( Occasional Productions, Political, Diplomatic, and Miscellaneous, 1869, pp. 219-57). He was also extremely successful in disposing on very favorable terms of the British securities which composed the Smithson estate, and, in August 1838, brought back to this country in English gold coin the sum of upwards of £104,000, which was used to establish the Smithsonian Institution. He always retained a great interest in this establishment, of which he was elected a regent, a post which he held to his death (Cyrus Alter, "The Relation of Richard Rush to the Smithsonian Institution" in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. LII, 1910, pp. 235-51).

The next public service to which this interesting man was called (March 3, 1847) was that of minister to France, in the administration of President Polk. From 1838 to 1847 he had lived quietly on his estate outside of Philadelphia, but though now sixty-seven years old, he cheerfully accepted political office once more. He arrived in France in the closing days of the July monarchy, and was a witness to the stirring events of the February revolution, which he described with much skill ( Occasional Productions, pp. 355-82). After a brief period of reflection, he decided to recognize the republic then set up, without waiting for instructions from Washington, and despite the reserve of all the other members of the diplomatic corps. He followed with obvious mistrust the course of the red republican revolt of July, but seems to have witnessed without extravagant regret the election of Louis Napoleon as president in December 1848. He was recalled with the entry of the Whigs into power in 1849.

This was Rush's last political office. He lived for ten years more, and still entertained an interest in public affairs. He approved the compromise measures of 1850, but was, in general, sympathetic with the attitude of the Democratic party towards slavery. He much feared the dissolution of the Union, censured the extravagance of the anti-slavery agitation, and voted for Buchanan in 1856. He died in Philadelphia on July 30, 1859. He had married Catherine E. Murray on August 29, 1809; of their ten children, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Of the men of the second rank who played a role in politics in the Middle Period, Richard Rush is decidedly one of the most attractive. He no doubt betrays a certain conventionality of mind, in the general character of his political thought, but he was by no means unwilling to accept personal responsibility, or to act on his own initiative when the occasion required. He had singularly few enemies; indeed, outside of his feud with the acid Randolph, and one youthful political altercation in Pennsylvania, his life was remarkably free from personal controversy. Laborious to a degree, of judicious mind, of wide intellectual interests, and of engaging manners, he played worthily every role to which he was called. A certain fastidiousness may have had something to do with the limited character of his political success, as compared with that of other men decidedly his inferiors in capacity. In appearance he was distinctly impressive. He had remarkable eyes, a broad and high forehead, and an air of scholarship that was decidedly attractive. His writings are not literary masterpieces, but they are usually interesting, and reveal a keen observer of men and things. The most important are his Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London, the first edition of which (1833) covered only two years, a second edition (1845) comprising the rest of his mission; and Occasional Productions, Political, Diplomatic and Miscellaneous, published by his executors in 1860.

Biography of Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813

Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born near Philadelphia in 1746. He graduated from the College of New Jersey at the age of fifteen and continued his studies in medicine at the Univerity of Edinburgh. Benjamin Rush started practicing medicine in Philadelphia and, in 1769, became professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. He became a surgeon in the "Pennsylvania Navy" and surgeon-general in 1777. Benjamin Rush was a member of the convention that ratified the Constitution of the United States in 1787. He was a founder of Dickinson College, treasurer of the United States Mint, and, until the time of his death in 1813, Rush continued teaching, rendering invaluable service during the yellow fever epidemic of 1795.

Biography of Benjamin Rush, 1811-1877

Benjamin Rush, grandson of Benjamin and son of Richard Rush, was born in Philadelphia in 1811. He graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1829 and was admitted to the bar in 1833. In 1837 Benjamin Rush became Secretary of the United States Legation in London, and was Chargé d'Affaires there for a short time. Rush was the author of "An Appeal for the Union" (1861), and "Letters on the Rebellion" (1862). He died in Paris on June 30, 1877.

Source: From the finding aid for C0079

Occupations

  • Diplomats -- 19th century..
  • Rush Family Papers. 1675-1885 (inclusive), 1817-1849 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0079

    The collection documents the career of Richard Rush (Princeton Class of 1797) as lawyer, statesman, and diplomat, emphasizing diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Great Britain while he was minister to Great Britain (1817-1825) and between the United States and France when he was minister to France (1847-1849), as well as his successful efforts (1836-1838) in securing the Smithsonian bequest, which was used to establish the Smithsonian Institution. The papers of Richard Rush constitute the larger part of the collection; letters of his father, Benjamin Rush, M.D. (Princeton Class of 1760), and papers of his son, Benjamin Rush (Princeton Class of 1829, constitute the other major groups of papers in this family archive.