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To Avoid Abuse from “bigots in religion...politics, or...medicine,” Thomas Jefferson Declines to Publish Benjamin Rush’s Private Correspondence
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Thomas Jefferson, long since retired to private life, declines the request of Dr. James Mease for copies of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s correspondence with Jefferson. Mease had hoped to include them in a volume of Rush’s letters to be published and specifically requested letters pertaining to Rush’s personal views on religion and politics. After demurring, Jefferson discusses at length the differences between personal and official correspondence, with philosophical thoughts on public versus private expression. He closes with assurances that his decision is nothing personal, and of his great respect for Mease: “I hope, my dear Sir, you will see in my scruples only a sentiment of fidelity to a deceased friend.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Autograph Letter Signed, to James Mease. With conjoined franked address leaf in Jefferson’s hand. August 17, 1816. Monticello, [Charlottesville, Va.]. 1 p., 9¾ x 8 in.

Inventory #23233       Price: $75,000

Complete Transcript

Dear Sir                         Monticello Aug. 17.16

I have duly received your favor of the 7th inst. requesting me to communicate to you such letters from the late Dr. Rush to myself as I possess on political, religious, and miscellaneous subjects, with a view to their publication. I possess but few such; but these were of extraordinary confidence; insomuch that, on his death, I requested from his family a return of my letters to him on subjects of this character, which they kindly and honorably did return. had I died first, I think it probable he would have made the same request from my family, & with the same view, that of preventing the publication of his letters, or their getting into hands which might expose him, living, or his character when dead, to obloquies from bigots in religion, in politics, or in medicine

            When we are pouring our inmost thoughts into the bosom of a friend, we lose sight of the world, we see ourselves only in confabulation with another self; we are off our guard; write hastily; hazard thoughts of the first impression; yield to momentary excitement; because, if we err, no harm is done; it is to a friend we have committed ourselves, who knows us, who will not betray us; but will keep to himself what, but for this confidence, we should reconsider, weigh, correct, perhaps reject, on the more mature reflections and dictates of our reason. to fasten a man down to all his unreflected expressions, and to publish him to the world in that as his serious & settled form, is a surprise on his judgment and character. I do not mean an inference that there is anything of this character in Doctor Rush’s letters to me: but only that, having been written without intention or preparation for publication, I do not think it within the office of a friend to give them a publicity which he probably did not contemplate.

            I know that this is often the form in which an author chuses to have his ideas made public. when the occasion, the subject, the chastened style evidently indicate this, it may be a good evidence of intention, as direct expression, but in the present case, the occasions were special, the persons and subjects most confidential, and the style the ordinary careless one of private correspondence. under these circumstances, I hope, my dear Sir, you will see in my scruples only a sentiment of fidelity to a deceased friend, and that you will accept assurances of my great esteem and respect

                        Th: Jefferson

Historical Background

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the subject of this request, was one of Jefferson’s most important correspondents—as evidenced by his now-published letters. Religion was a frequent object of discussion in their letters, and they shared an essentially deistic view of the world. “I have sworn upon the altar of God,” Jefferson wrote Benjamin Rush in 1800, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (Jefferson to Rush, September 23, 1800)

Jefferson’s own attitude toward a higher being was complex and deeply considered. While he rejected much of Christian doctrine, he embraced the moral teachings ascribed to Christ. Writing to Rush in 1803, Jefferson stated simply, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other” (Jefferson to Rush, April 21, 1803). Jefferson considered the supernatural aspects of worship as incompatible with reason and deeply distrusted the interference of religious leaders in civic matters.

In his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson professed reverence for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, extolling the act for “building a wall of separation between church and State.”

In the letter offered here, Jefferson mentions religion as the first topic that could expose a writer to “obloquy” (abusively detractive language or utterances). Throughout his presidency, Jefferson had been attacked as an infidel and atheist for his deistic worldview. To Jefferson, the attacks represented the baneful influence of orthodoxy, and he sought to shield his friend’s legacy from similar, posthumous attacks.

James Mease (1771-1846) studied medicine under Benjamin Rush and was a prominent Philadelphia doctor and scientific thinker. He helped develop a scientific vineyard, was a member and curator of the American Philosophical Society, and was a founder and the first vice president of the Philadelphia Athenaeum. He served as a surgeon during the War of 1812. He devoted considerable time to correspondence among other scientifically minded individuals around the United States and the world on subjects of horticulture, geology, penal and criminal reform, technology, and medicine. He wrote a book, The Picture of Philadelphia, Giving an Account of its Origin, Increase, and Improvements in Arts, Sciences, Manufactures, Commerce and Revenue (1811), that charted the city and its inhabitants’ rise to prominence in American life.

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