Thomas Jefferson had a long friendship with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the early United States’ most well-known physicians. The love of science the two men shared was often part of their correspondence, but they shared many other parts of their lives as well and it was Rush who eventually led the famed reconciliation between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams later in their lives.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Olivia Brown: For the fourth and final installment in our Jefferson and Friendship Series, we're going to look at his relationship with another Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence: Dr. Benjamin Rush. While Rush may not be the most well-known of Jefferson's friendships, his was one that challenged Jefferson, inspired his scientific pursuits, and even led him to reconciliation with one of his other longest and dearest friends. We're going to talk about all of that. 

Benjamin Rush was born on January 4, 1746, about 14 miles from Philadelphia, and he would spend his life and career working mostly in his home state of Pennsylvania. His father died when he was about five years old, and a few years later, he and his brother Jacob attended the school run by Reverend Dr. Samuel Finley, later known as the West Nottingham Academy. He furthered his studies at the College of New Jersey, today called Princeton University, and Rush received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1760, at the young age of only fourteen. His later teenage years were time for travel and learning. He held a medical apprenticeship for six years under Dr. John Redmond in Philadelphia, but then continued at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he received his Medical Degree in 1768. Barely 22 years old, he traveled to London and Paris, working in hospitals and learning languages like French, Italian, and Spanish. 

When Rush returned to the North American colonies in 1769, he began his medical practice and was appointed a Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. He published the first American textbook in the field of chemistry, his Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Chemistry, in 1770. He continued to dedicate his life to science and medicine and was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society, then served as its Curator from 1770 to 1773, its Secretary in 1773, and its Vice President from 1797 to 1801. He's remembered now as the "father of American psychiatry," for his 1812 publication of Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind. Rush was dedicated and ambitious to say the least, two traits often found in the friends of Thomas Jefferson. 

 It's likely that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush first met in the year 1776, when both men served as delegates to the second Continental Congress: Jefferson from Virginia and Rush from Pennsylvania. They both signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, and memories of that day stayed with Rush for many years to come. 

In a letter to John Adams on July 20, 1811, Rush, writing from Philadelphia, reflected, 

"Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the Day on which the Vote was taken? Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants?" 

He continued with the remembrance of how that weighted moment was broken, 

"The silence and the gloom of the morning were interrupted I well recollect only for a moment by Col: Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry at the table, 'I shall have a great advantage over you Mr: Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you're dead.' The Speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the Solemnity with which the whole business was conducted." 

While the humor was a bit dark, to say the least, the gravitas of the moment was clearly not lost on the men gathered in Philadelphia. 

Dr. Benjamin Rush went on to be an active member of the Sons of Liberty and played a role in the field during the American Revolutionary War. He accompanied the Philadelphia militia to various battles, and is depicted in paintings of the Battle of Princeton. Though the Army Medical Service was plagued with inadequate supplies and few medical professionals, Rush accepted an appointment as surgeon-general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army. The problems he faced in this position caused him to resign in January 1778, when he then resumed his medical practice in Philadelphia. 

The first letter between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush dated to 1783, after the American Revolution and at a time when Rush was both working at the Pennsylvania Hospital, and, quite probably, on his plans for founding Dickinson College, which opened that same year. That first letter was simple: it was a letter of introduction for Benjamin Vaughan, British merchant and agriculturalist, who Rush described as "a fellow worshiper in the temple of Science." The correspondence between the two men in the following few years are sparse, and typically consist of similar letters of introduction for people Rush thought Jefferson would like to know. 

In the 1790s, the two men shared a city of residence: Philadelphia. This didn't last long, however, as Thomas Jefferson fled the city during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. He was serving as the country's first Secretary of State, but so many people had left Philadelphia at this point that little was getting accomplished in the government. Benjamin Rush, the doctor who correctly identified the disease, stayed in the city in an attempt to save those who were infected. Unfortunately, his efforts may have been in vain, because his use of the controversial medicinal practice of bloodletting as a treatment may have actually caused more fatalities than it saved. 

Both Rush and Jefferson, devotees of science and what was termed Common Sense Realism, were active members of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Rush, an abolitionist who often spoke out against the institution of slavery, had complicated views on race and skin color, much like Jefferson. He published a pamphlet for the American Philosophical Society called, "Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Colour (As it is Called) of the Negroes is Derived from Leprosy." While he correctly concluded in this pamphlet that "claims of superiority of the whites over the blacks are founded alike an ignorance and inhumanity," he then incorrectly concluded that the difference in black skin color was due to inherited leprosy. As a physician, he thought there existed a cure that would bring the skin of Black or African people back "to a natural white flesh color." These type of ideas laid the foundation for scientific racism and eugenics that continued to develop during this period. Many Enlightenment thinkers, like Jefferson and Rush, believed this idea of biological white superiority, and the topic was one they discussed with each other and among their contemporaries. While they were at times unsure about how science and race worked together, even the suspicions of a racial hierarchy were extremely detrimental to those who are on the receiving end of these oppressive ideas. 

Around this same time, in the early 1790s, Jefferson and Rush shared with each other their commentary on a major scientific discussion, and one that was inherently tied to the system of slavery as well: the benefits of an increased use of the sugar maple tree over importing sugar cane from the West Indies. The discussions that came out of this tell us a lot about both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush and their views on slavery, but we're actually going to have an entire separate podcast about just this topic. So keep an eye out! 

Throughout their long friendship, Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Benjamin Rush continued to revel in the shared love of science. Jefferson revered Rush's medical prowess and chose him specifically in 1803 to train a young military captain, Meriweather Lewis, in preparation for a journey across the North American interior. Imploring Rush to train Lewis, Jefferson wrote to him in early 1803 of Lewis's qualifications, "Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners and character. he is not regularly educated, but he possesses a great mass of accurate observation on all the subjects of nature which present themselves here, & will readily select those only in his new route, which shall be new." He continued, "I ask the favor of you to prepare some notes of such particulars as may occur in his journey & what you think shall draw his attention & enquiry. he will be in Philadelphia about 2. or 3 weeks hence & will wait on you." 

Meriwether Lewis arrived at the Philadelphia home of Benjamin Rush on May 17, 1803. Dr. Rush provided Lewis with advice and written directions for preserving his health on the expedition. These directions often included laying down and resting, specifically in a horizontal position, and using Dr. Rush's patented purging pills for almost everything else. The pills were made of calomel, a mixture of six parts mercury to one part chlorine, and jalap, a natural plant root, and the pills were intended to be used to purge the body of any and all ills. Essentially, they were extremely potent laxatives. Rush did also provide Lewis with a medical list of essentials totaling $90.69, including supplies like lancets, forceps, syringes, 600 purging pills, and other medicinal drugs. Additionally, he sent Merriweather Lewis with a questionnaire that had inquiries about the Native American peoples the men would undoubtedly meet with on the expedition. Ever a seeker of scientific data, Dr. Rush wanted Lewis to ask about their medical remedies, religious practices, and personal health and hygiene. Rush, clearly impressed by Lewis in the brief training period he had, wrote to Jefferson later, "His mission is truly interesting. I shall wait with great solicitude for its issue. Mr: Lewis appears admirably qualified for it. May its Advantages prove no less honourable to your Administration, than to the interests of Science!" 

Benjamin Rush was not only a longtime friend of Thomas Jefferson, but throughout his life, he exchanged many letters with another veteran of the Second Continental Congress: John Adams. The three men had met because of their dedication to the new United States, and all three of their names were signed on the bottom of its founding document. Many years later, it plagued Rush that Jefferson and Adams, who had once been so fond of one another, were no longer on speaking terms. The political fallout of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams built up over many years as the two became the leading figures in their respective political parties: Jefferson a Democratic-Republican and Adams a Federalist. The election of 1800 saw the peaceful transition of power from the Adams to Jefferson presidencies, but the political strife among the two men from the 1790s broke down the friendship they once enjoyed. 

Rush had written to Jefferson after his ascension to the Presidency, lauding his inaugural address and the way many Federalists were actually impressed with the words of the country's new leader who was of the opposing party. Rush wrote, "It would require a page to contain the names of all the citizens (formerly called federalists) who have spoken in the highest terms of your Speech." During a contentious time in early American politics, it seemed Jefferson was bringing people together, just apparently not his former friend John Adams. 

In early January 1811, two years after Jefferson retired from being President, Rush wrote to him from Philadelphia asking him to consider bridging the gap with Adams. Rush said, 

"Your and my Old friend Mr Adams now & then drops me a line from his Seat at Quincy [...] When I consider your early Attachment to Mr Adams and his - to you - when I consider how much the liberties & independence of the United States owe to the Concert of your principles and labors, and when I reflect upon the sameness of your Opinions at present, on most of the Subjects of Government, and on all the Subjects of legislation, I have ardently wished a friendly and epistolary intercourse might be revived between you before you take your final leave of the Common Object of your Affections." 

The response Jefferson offered was lengthy and went into detail about the conversations between Jefferson and both John and Abigail Adams. During the election of 1800, Jefferson wrote of his long conversations with Adams and how it ended, saying, "I turned the conversation to something else, & soon took my leave. It was the first time in our lives we had ever parted with any thing like dissatisfaction." This long letter from Jefferson concluded, 

"I have gone, my dear friend, into these details that you might know every thing which had passed between us, might be fully possessed of the state of facts and dispositions, and judge for yourself, whether they admit a revival of that friendly intercourse for which you are so kindly solicitous." 

It seemed, at this point, as though Rush was in a bit over his head in these reconciliation efforts. In his response to Jefferson, he wrote, "many are the evils of political life, but none So great as the dissolution of friendships and the implacable hatreds which often take their place." 

Rush's letters with Adams regarding Jefferson, also intended to affect a reconciliation, had been going on for a longer period of time. The two had written often toward the end of Jefferson's second presidential term about his politics and subsequent retirement. In December 1811, nearly a year after Rush and Jefferson first exchanged letters on the matter, Benjamin Rush relayed to John Adams kind words from Thomas Jefferson, who said, "I wish therefore for an Apposite Occasion to express to Mr Adams my unchanged Affection for him." This caused Rush to bring up his cause once more. He wrote in the same letter to Adams, "And now my dear friend - permit me Again to suggest to you, - to receive the Olive branch which has thus been offered to you by the hand of a Man who still loves you." Rush attempted to appeal to Adam's emotions, dramatically writing, 

"- embrace - embrace each Other!- Bedew your letters of reconciliation with tears of Affection and joy. - Bury in Silence all the Causes of your separation. Recollect that explanations may be proper between lovers, but are never so between divided friends. Were I near to you I would put a pen in your hand and guide it." 

For all its emotional flourishes and dramatics, Rush's appeals worked. Less than three weeks later, on January 1, 1812, John Adams resumed his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, offering updates of his own family members' health and sending wishes for a happy new year. Adams signed this letter, "I am Sir with a long and Sincere Esteem your Friend and Servant John Adams." 

Ultimately both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson have their friend Dr. Benjamin Rush to thank for this reconciliation of their friendship. Jefferson and Adams would write many, many more letters to each other over the next fourteen years of their lives, until they both passed away on July 4, 1826. 

The long friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush was one that began with a shared vision for a new nation, blossomed with a mutual love of science, and ended with the trust that longtime friends should be so once again. While Benjamin Rush may not be the most remembered of the Founding Fathers, his contributions to the early United States and the ways in which he challenged others' views, like Jefferson's, help to foster a civic culture, dedicated to science and equality that continues in our society today. 

 This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at 

Recent Videos and Podcasts