Thomas Jefferson Papers

Notes on a Conversation with Benjamin Rush, 1 February 1800

Notes on a Conversation with Benjamin Rush

Feb. 1. Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed Genl. Washington on his departure from the govmt, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which shewed a belief in the Xn. religion and he thot they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. they did so. however he observed the old fox was too cunning for them. he answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.

I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that Genl. Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.

MS (DLC: TJ Papers, 108:18558); entirely in TJ’s hand; on same sheet as Notes on a Conversation with Mr. Smith of Hamburg, 24 Jan. 1800.

The source of Rush’s information was not Asa, but Ashbel Green, with whom Rush had a long acquaintance. Green drafted the address of the Philadelphia Clergy to George Washington in March 1797, when he was minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, chaplain of Congress, and the stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. He later played a key role in founding the Princeton Theological Seminary and from 1812 to 1822 was president of the College of New Jersey. In 1830, following the publication of the notes above by Thomas Jefferson Randolph in his four-volume selection from TJ’s papers, Green penned a scathing commentary for a monthly publication he edited, the Philadelphia Christian Advocate. In their address to Washington the ministers had quoted a portion of his Farewell Address that related to religion and morality, and Green acknowledged that he had hoped to elicit from the retiring president a statement equivalent to the reference to “the Divine Author of our blessed Religion” that Washington had placed at the conclusion of his circular letter to the governors of the states when he left the army in June 1783. But Green denied that the ministers had attempted to prompt Washington into making a public declaration in support of Christianity, and he took strong exception to TJ’s characterizations of the ministers’ address and Washington’s religious beliefs (Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. [Princeton, 1951], 1:435n; Joseph H. Jones, ed., The Life of Ashbel Green, V.D.M. [New York, 1849], 269–70, 614–15; Christian Advocate, 8 [1830], 78, 305–9; Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends , 26:496; 35:229; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends 7:536–7; ANB, description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends 9:476–7).

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