American Classics

Richard Rush, Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London (1833)

With the exception of his friend, John Quincy Adams, Richard Rush had the most distinguished public career of any son of the Founders (his father, Benjamin, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence). He served as Comptroller of the Treasury, Attorney General, acting Secretary of State (he negotiated the Rush-Bagot Agreement, which demilitarized the Great Lakes), Minister to Great Britain, Secretary of the Treasury, Vice Presidential candidate, commissioner to receive the bequest of James Smithson, and Minister to France. Rush’s political loyalties wandered from the Jeffersonians to the National Republicans, Anti-Masonry, and finally (on the issue of the Second Bank of the United States) to the Jacksonian Democrats. But his abilities as a statesman and diplomat were unquestioned.

Richard RushWhile serving as Minister to England from 1817-1825, Rush kept a journal that became the basis for his diplomatic memoirs, Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London (covering the years 1818-9; originally published in 1833); and the less comprehensive second volume, A Residence at the Court of London, Comprising Incidents, Official and Personal, from 1819 to 1825, published in 1845. A third edition, edited by his son, Benjamin, which included an account of his time as Minister to France during the Revolutions of 1848, was issued in 1872. In part to avoid diplomatic complications that might result from his unvarnished views, Rush edited the journals to smooth out the rough edges and added explanatory material to bring the narrative context up to date.

Rush and his son made it clear that one of the principal purposes in publishing these memoirs was to improve Anglo-American relations. Rush, in his Jeffersonian phase, had been staunchly anti-English. As Madison’s Attorney General, Rush delivered a public address on July 4, 1812, which was widely regarded as the Madison administration’s best public case for its decision to go to war against Britain, even more so than the President’s own War Message to Congress. But as Minister in London, Rush, like many American visitors to the former mother country, found much about England and English society to admire. “No language can express the emotion which almost every American feels when he first touches the shores of Europe. This feeling must have a special increase, if it be the case of a citizen of the United States going to England. Her fame is constantly before him. He is accustomed to hear of her statesmen, her orators, her scholars, her philosophers, her divines, her patriots. In the nursery he learns her ballads. Her poets train his imagination. Her language is his, with its whole intellectual riches, past, and forever newly flowing; a tie, to use Burke’s figure, light as air, and unseen; but stronger than links of iron. In spite of political differences, her glory allures him. In spite of hostile collision, he clings to her lineage.”

Rush wanted to break down the mutual distrust and recriminations that existed after the War of 1812. As he noted in his introduction to the first volume (1833):

I have written in the spirit of good feeling towards Britain, which may be cherished by every American compatibly with his superior love for his own country, and which I believe few Americans fail to cherish who stay there as long as I did. A residence of nearly eight years corrected many erroneous impressions I had previously taken up; as a residence of like time in this country by Britons almost invariably imbues them with totally different feelings and opinions respecting the United States from those adopted by their hasty, and too often uninformed and uncandid travelers who come among us. Enough has been written and said on both sides to irritate. My desire is, and such my effort, to soothe. President Jackson, in his last annual message to Congress, has spoken of the value of a good understanding between two countries “cemented by a community of language, manners, and social habits, and by the high obligations we owe to our British ancestors for many of our most valuable institutions, and for that system of representative government which has enabled us to preserve and improve them.”

Such sentiments had not been common during the tenure in London (1815-1817) of Rush’s immediate predecessor, the intensely nationalistic John Quincy Adams. But Rush believed that opportunities for transatlantic cooperation existed during the early part of his assignment, when Lord Castlereagh held the Foreign Office. But his memoirs also indicated the reasons why things had not gone further, particularly under Castlereagh’s rival and successor, George Canning.

These difficulties would unfold over time. The decisive world-historical fact for Rush was the refutation of “the prophecies at the close of the American revolution, made by master minds in both hemispheres, that the independence of the United States could not last, and that the downfall of Britain would date from that memorable dismemberment of her own empire.” In fact, “their severance seems to have been the signal for unequalled progress, and boundless prospects to each; not more in material dominion than in the solid and durable glory of widening the empire of rational freedom throughout the world.”

But that which was most calculated to occupy the thoughts of an American Minister when George III died, was… an increase in resources and power far transcending that of any other two nations of the globe during the same period. Their increase in population, throwing into the scale the Colonial and Oriental subjects of Britain, seems to stagger belief. Their aggregate increase in all ways has given earnest that Britain and the United States are destined to become, to an extent not easy to estimate, the predominating nations of Christendom; as already their joint commerce and tonnage, those fruitful causes and sure evidences of power in modern times, overmatches that of all Christendom. The demonstrations are in steady progress, and the death of George III naturally recalled them, that the Anglo-Saxon race is to rule in the Western hemisphere, as the spirit of the same race rules in Asia. From east to west, the language, laws, commerce, and freedom of that great race are extending with resistless force, and must overspread, in primary activity and in civilizing power and influence, the face of the globe.

Rush went to great lengths to refute the opinion, common among many Americans for decades, that England was on the verge of social or financial collapse because of the debts incurred as a result of American Revolution and the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Despite the parliamentary reforms of 1832, many Americans still felt that way, but for Rush, writing the introduction to his memoirs in the following year, “the opinions in which I feel most confidence, and which are most important, are those which refer to the wealth and power of England, and their steady augmentation.… I am aware that great political changes have taken place since; but I do not, at my distance, believe that any essential changes will yet have been produced by them, bearing upon the character or habits of the nation. These, when the growth of ages, alter slowly in any country. In England, they will come about more slowly than in most countries.”

Rush spent considerable time studying and documenting the factors, including those of national character, which had led to England’s undeniable commercial and naval supremacy – factors that might also serve to guide the younger branch of the Anglo-Saxon race. Rush was fond of quoting Sir Walter Raleigh: “The nation that commands the trade of the world, commands its riches, and consequently the world itself.” The laws and conduct of the English, attested to the fact that they never forget that maxim. Remarkably, Britain was able to expand its economy and trade during wartime. “What cripples the resources of other nations, multiplies her’s.… War, by creating new markets, gives a stimulus to industry, calls out capital, and may increase not merely the fictitious but positive wealth of the country carrying it on, where the country is powerful and not the seat of war. Moscow may be burned; Vienna, Berlin, Paris sacked; but it is always, said Franklin, peace in London. The British moralist may be slow to think, that it is during war the riches and power of Britain are most advanced; but it is the law of her insular situation and maritime ascendency. The political economist may strive to reason it down, but facts confound him.” Rush believed that the United States was morally superior to England but that that the latter had much to teach – not so much as to the profitability of war as to the advantages of national planning, the encouragement of arts and sciences. “A wise nation,” he wrote to a fellow diplomat, “like a wise man, seeing how an adversary has got upon the vantage ground, will first imitate that he may surpass him.”

Rush’s memoirs are a mixture of his public career and the private life, a distinction which in any event could not be made even for a republican diplomat in aristocratic times. Dinner conversations and country excursions with men like Jeremy Bentham, the Duke of Wellington, and William Wilberforce were in their own way as important as official conferences with Castlereagh.

I might have thrown into separate works the parts official and parts personal. But I preferred their junction. No public man, whatever the extent or magnitude of his duties, leads a purely official life, detached from personal scenes and feelings interwoven with it. Some view of these may even serve on occasion to elucidate better the true movement of official acts, by exhibiting the latter in a broader connection. I have also thought, that it might not be wholly unacceptable to the American community to know something of the personal reception of their Minister in England in virtue of the trust he bears; not simply that which awaits him in the common forms when he first arrives, but more generally afterwards. The same motive will open to his countrymen some views, imperfect indeed and few, but still some views, of the social tone prevailing in classes amongst which his public trust necessarily, and, if his residence be protracted, largely, throws him.

In his official capacity, Rush did not accomplish the long-standing American objective in Britain: a general treaty with London that would resolve the major outstanding issues between the two nations, particularly (from the American perspective) the removal of unfair trade restrictions to the British West Indies and the end Britain’s insistence on the right of impressment. The British Ministry, in turn, pressed Rush unsuccessfully for American support for suppressing the slave trade. The Monroe administration supported cooperative action in principle but was suspicious that Britain intended to use such an agreement to gain general American acquiescence to the right of the Royal Navy to inspect American ships.

That said, Rush developed an excellent working relationship with the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, whose policies Rush, unlike Adams, believed were guided by a sincere effort to establish good will between the two nations. Rush found Castlereagh to be frank but friendly, interested in clarity rather than diplomatic obfuscation and more willing to commit Britain on particular issues than Rush generally expected. The two sides agreed on the Convention of 1818, building on the interim Convention of 1815, which resolved some commercial issues and fishing rights; agreed to the use of the Russian Tsar to mediate a dispute over the disposition of American slaves taken by the British during the War of 1812; and adjusted certain boundary issues.

Rush was greatly encouraged by Castlereagh’s surprisingly moderate reaction to then-General Andrew Jackson’s summary execution in 1818 of two British citizens whom Jackson accused of fomenting Indian attacks from Spanish Florida. Afterwards, “Lord Castlereagh said to me, that a war might have been produced on this occasion, ‘if the ministry had but held up a finger.’ On so slender a thread do public affairs sometimes hang. Plato says, that the complaisance which produces popularity, is the source of the greatest operations in government. The firmness of one man, is perhaps the pivot on which great events more frequently turn. I adopted and retain the belief, that the firmness of Lord Castlereagh under this emergency, sustained by that of his colleagues in the cabinet, was the main cause of preventing a rupture between the two nations.”

These words made their impression upon me. I thought them memorable at the time: I think so still. They were calmly but deliberately spoken. Lord Castlereagh was not a man to speak hastily. Always self-possessed, always firm and fearless, his judgment was the guide of his opinions, and his opinions of his conduct, undaunted by opposition in Parliament or out of it. Political foes conceded to him these qualities. What he said to me on this occasion, I have reasons for knowing he said to others in effect, if not in words; and I wrote his words to my Government. The lapse of a quarter of a century ought not to diminish the feeling properly due to a British Ministry which, by its single will, resisting the nearly universal feeling of the two great parties of the kingdom, in all probability prevented a war; a war into which passion might have rushed, but for the preponderating calmness and reason in those who wielded at that epoch the executive power of England.

Rush also believed that if the timing of European diplomatic events been different, Castlereagh would have been willing to settle the question of impressments. Castlereagh was one of the few British statesmen who did not regard international relations in general, and Anglo-American relations in particular, as a zero-sum game. “And may I not, in this connection, be allowed to recall the declarations made to [U.S. Minister to France] Gallatin and me by Lord Castlereagh, when opening an important negotiation between the two countries at North Cray? Upon that occasion, amongst other sentiments which he uttered, he said, ‘Let us, in short, strive so to regulate our intercourse in all respects, as that each nation may be able to do its utmost towards making the other rich and happy.’ A liberal sentiment, and wise as liberal – one in unison with the spirit of an age which seeks to lessen the causes of national dissension and war – a sentiment, than which no better motto could be chosen by all nations entering upon negotiation, and most especially suited to the United States and England, as having common interests and sympathies perhaps beyond all others existing.”

Not all Englishmen felt the same way. Rush found himself and his nation under attack by British journals, including those of a Whiggish and reformist cast. And Castlereagh, whatever his interest in improved Anglo-American relations, was not at all sympathetic towards democracy or self-determination, whether on the Continent or in Spanish America. He also objected to further American territorial expansion. He warned Rush that the resulting turmoil would cause a falling-out among the great powers. “Europe requires repose,” he told Rush; each state has had enough of war, and enough of glory and ought to be content.… You, too, YOU of America, Mr. Rush, ought also to be satisfied; you left off very well, and ought to wish for nothing but a continuation of peace.”

America did wish for peace, but through an independent path resulting from insulating the New World strategically and politically from the Old, a policy that Rush endorsed enthusiastically.

Let me here give brief expression to a feeling I often had during my mission – one which is common, I suppose, to every Minister of the United States abroad. It is, his feeling of entire independence of the combinations and movements going on among the other Powers, no matter what may be their nature. Properly improved, this makes his personal position agreeable, as well with the Court where he may be residing, as with the entire Diplomatic Corps. For his country, he has only to be just and fear not. The smaller Powers cannot have this calm assurance; and the representatives of the great Powers naturally respect the office of American Minister, from a knowledge of the resources, and growing power of the nation that sends him; and also (some of them) from dreaming of contingencies which may make the friendship of the United States desirable, though their maxim be, “peace and commerce with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” One of the members of the Corps, who witnessed the salutations passing between Lord Castlereagh and me, said to me a few minutes afterwards, “How happy you must feel in these times, when none of us know what is to happen in Europe: you belong to us,” (meaning to the Corps) “yet are independent.”

As time went on, and particularly with the accession of George Canning to the Foreign Office, the near term limits of Anglo-American cooperation became clear. This was the implicit theme of Rush’s second volume, which contained far less detail that the first. Perhaps the most famous part of Rush’s tenure in England came in the second half of 1823, when he was approached by Canning to develop a joint approach to warn off France and the Holy Alliance from attempting to restore Spanish rule in the Americas. Rush had no guidance from Washington on the matter but he correctly anticipated the outcome of the Monroe administration’s deliberations. He told Canning that he would be guided by the thrust of his existing instructions: any formal cooperation with London depended on Britain’s prior recognition of those South American states that clearly achieved their independence.

This Canning would not do; he turned instead to the French to reach an understanding (the Polignac Memorandum). This confirmed Rush’s judgment that Canning, unlike Castlereagh, operated according to its narrow national interest and not that of enlarged views.

With all our admiration of the mental powers of Mr. Canning, whether as inherited from nature, or carried to their highest pitch by culture and discipline; whether we marked their efforts when brought to the most momentous trials, or only gazed at them when they dazzled in lighter ones, truth compels us to state, that he was never the political friend of this country. He was a Briton, through and through – British in his feelings, British in his aims, British in all his policy and projects. It made no difference whether the lever that was to raise them was fixed at home or abroad: for he was always and equally British. The influence, the grandeur, the dominion, of Britain, were the dream of his boyhood. To establish these all over the globe, even in the remote region where the waters of the Columbia flow in solitude, formed the intense efforts of his riper years. For this he valued power; for this he used it.… For Britain’s sake, exclusively, he took the determination to counteract France, and the Continent, in Spanish America. So, for Britain’s sake, he invariably watched, and was as invariably for counteracting, the United States.

Rush could not blame Canning for looking out for his own country’s interests, but Canning failed to realize that “true liberality in the intercourse of nations is, in the end, apt to prove true wisdom.” He also failed to grasp the point that Anglo-American cooperation had the potential to guide the course of world politics. That cooperation, in Rush’s opinion, could not be achieved on the narrow basis of joint action on South America, but only through genuine progress across the full range of issues that divided the two nations: trade, borders, the fisheries and impressment. Rush believed that genuine progress would eventually occur and that his memoirs would contribute to that process.