Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Rush, 5 August 1803

From Benjamin Rush

Philadelphia, August 5th 1803.

Dear Sir,

I return you herewith Sir John Sinclair’s pamphlet upon Old Age with many thanks. I have read it with pleasure, and subscribe to the truth of most of his opinions. They accord with opinions which I published many years ago in the 2nd Volume of my Medical Inquiries and Observations.

I have just finished reading Col: now Sir Robt Wilson’s account of the British Campaign in Egypt. It is well written, and is a very popular work in our City, chiefly from its containing the history of the cruelties exercised by Bonaparte’s1 in that country. Its merit to me consists much more in the facts he has related respecting the plague. The annexed extract from one of our news papers contains the substance of them. They will be followed Sir Robert says, by several valuable publications by Medical men in which the non-importation, noncontagion, and domestic origin of the plague will be fully and clearly proved. I wish this subject occupied more of the attention of the legislators of all countries. The laws which are now in force in every part of the world to prevent the importation of malignant fevers are absurd, expensive, vexatious and oppressive to a great degree. Posterity will view them in the same light that we now view horseshoes at the doors of Farmers houses to defend them from Witches. We originally imported our opinions of the contagious nature of the plague from the ignorant and degraded inhabitants of Egypt. It is high time to reject them from countries where free inquiry is tollerated upon all subjects connected with the interests and happiness of nations. There is more hope upon this subject from laws than upon many others. A thousand considerations oppose the extinction of Wars, which cannot operate upon the extermination of pestilential diseases. There is no moral evil in them, and of course no obstacles to their destruction, but what arise from ignorance and prejudice. It would seem as if a certain portion of superstition belonged necessarily to the human mind, and that that part of it which had been banished from Religion, had taken sanctuary in Medicine, hence thousands of the Citizens of the United States who would be ashamed to exclaim “Great is Diana of Ephesus” now openly and zealously cry out “Great are the quarantines of all our States.”

From Dear Sir with great respect Your sincere old friend of 1775

Benjn Rush.

P.S. Had not Bonaparte been a believer in the contagion of the plague, he would not have added to his other crimes—the destruction of 580 of his soldiers who were confined with the plague, lest they should infect his whole army. There is no calculating the amount of the cruelty, and misery which have issued from a belief in that most absurd doctrine. It is just now beginning to produce distress of every kind in the City of New York. Our Citizens instead of offering its inhabitants an asylum have this day interdicted all intercourse with them by land and water.

Tr (PU); typescript; verso of last page has a transcription in an unidentified hand of an endorsement probably made by Richard Rush on the RC, which has not been found, reading in part “My father to Mr Jefferson August 5. 1803” (see L. H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. [Princeton, 1951], 2:873n). Dft (PHi: Thomas Biddle Family Papers); undated, unsigned, and not addressed; lacks postscript; contains an additional paragraph (see below). Recorded in SJL as received 12 Aug.

For the pamphlet by Sir John Sinclair, see TJ to Rush, 24 June.

Beginning in 1789, Rush published groups of his essays in volumes titled medical inquiries and observations. The second volume of the series included “An Account of the State of the Body and Mind in Old Age; with Observations on its Diseases, and their Remedies.” Sinclair reprinted Rush’s paper in a compendium published in Edinburgh in 1807 (Benjamin Rush, Medical Inquiries and Observations, 2 [1793], 293-321; Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2:873n).

The Philadelphia bookseller John Conrad was preparing an edition of Robert Thomas wilson’s History of the British Expedition to Egypt, a work first published in London in 1802. The author, a British army officer, had been in Egypt for several months in 1801 with the expeditionary force that ousted the French from the region. The day before Rush wrote the letter printed above, Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser published an extract from Wilson’s book that described two instances of barbarity that were, according to Wilson, the result of orders from Bonaparte. One of the incidents was the execution by French troops of several thousand Ottoman Empire soldiers who had surrendered after a siege at Jaffa in Palestine in March 1799. The other event was the administration of lethal doses of opium in the form of laudanum to French soldiers who were ill with the plague. In the draft of his letter to TJ, Rush mentioned the incidents and declared of Bonaparte: “Both these Outrages upon humanity were perpetrated with circumstances of levity, and Apathy that mark a mind from which the World in its present state, has every thing to fear, and Nothing to hope.” Bonaparte denied Wilson’s version of the events and lodged an official protest with the British government (Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 4, 5 Aug.; Robert Thomas Wilson, History of the British Expedition to Egypt [Philadelphia, 1803], 87-94; Paul Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt [New York, 2008], 323-8; Robert Solé, Bonaparte à la conquête de l’Égypte [Paris, 2006], 163-5; DNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, In Association with The British Academy, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Oxford, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ).

domestic origin of the plague: in a discussion of “Diseases of Egypt,” Wilson declared “that the plague is local, occasioned by a corrupted state of atmosphere, and never introduced by contagion.” He gave anecdotal information to support the assertion and cited forthcoming or proposed works by European and British doctors who had been with the armies in Egypt or had other experience in the region (Wilson, History of the British Expedition to Egypt, 303-17).

In a final paragraph of his draft that he omitted from the letter as he sent it to TJ, Rush wrote of ignorance and prejudice: “It is from a long & painful familiarity with the ignorance and errors which prevail upon the causes, & means of preventing plagues and yellow fevers that I have been led to despair of the melioration of the moral and political condition of man by the efforts of human Reason. If the causes of disease & death when Obtruded annually upon his senses of sight and smelling, by putrefying masses of matter, are sought for in the timbers of a ship, in a hogshead of rum, or in a loaf sugar,—how is it possible to awaken his Attention, or to direct his zeal to obviate the less perceptible causes of political misery?”

sincere old friend of 1775: in his draft, Rush expanded on his reference to the American Revolution. He wrote: “When I compare our citizens, with what they were in 1774. 1775. & 1776 I feel disposed to consider all the wise, and patriotic events of those years as miraculous. Human reason seems to have had nothing to do with them. Public men in those days acted like the twelve Apostles, under a divine and unerring impulse. That impulse has ceased, and hence the revival of exploded, and the promulgation of new Opinions equally absurd & destructive in thier nature and tendency,—hence the distracted Councils, and malignant party Spirit which prevail in every part of our Country. They are all the results of imperfect Reason. May Heaven avert thier baneful influence upon our Government and people!—But Whither have I rambled?—My business is only to feel pulses—and inspect foul tongues. In every Obliquity in which the perverted passions and reason shall drive our citizens, I will continue to love them, and whatever effect they may Ultimately have in changing or Destroying our excellent form of Government; I shall always believe that a Republic is the best of all governments, and that it is the most conformable to all the moral & religious Obligations of Man.”

destruction of 580 of his soldiers: describing the second instance of cruelty by the French in the Egyptian campaigns, Wilson claimed that Bonaparte, driven by a fear of “the danger of contagion” and ignoring the pleas of his chief medical officer, forced the killing by opiates of 580 plague-infected French soldiers as the army withdrew from the failed expedition into Palestine and Syria. Although Wilson’s figure was too high, several dozen French soldiers in the hospital at Jaffa, including some who did not have the plague but were severely wounded, likely did receive large doses of laudanum because the army either could not or would not evacuate them. Bonaparte may have been more concerned about potential effects of the plague on morale and order among his troops than about contagion (Wilson, History of the British Expedition to Egypt, 91-2; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 4 Aug.; Strathern, Napoleon in Egypt, 329-32, 375-8; Solé, Bonaparte à la conquête de l’Égypte, 166-7, 181-2; Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Rumor, Contagion, and Colonization in Gros’s Plague-Stricken of Jaffa [1804],” Representations, 51 [1995], 7-9, 14, 26-33; Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East [New York, 2007], 235-7).

our citizens: a Pennsylvania statute of April 1803 created the Philadelphia Board of Health, which had five members, all appointed by the governor. Each received $400 compensation per year, and no more than two of the group could be physicians. A section of the April law empowered the board “to prohibit and to prevent all communication” by land and water with any “port or place within the United States or on the continent of America” where there was contagious disease. On 4 Aug., following the arrival of unsubstantiated reports of a yellow fever outbreak in New York City, a member of the board introduced a resolution to cut off connections between the cities. The board decided to wait for more information, but the following day a letter by “A Citizen,” reluctantly published by William Duane in the Aurora, declared that “if our board will not use that vigilance which they ought, to preserve the city in health, by every means in their power, it is for us citizens to stir them up, and put them in mind of their duty.” By an order dated 9 Aug., the Board of Health put vessels arriving from New York under quarantine, required any persons coming from that city to be in good health and to prove on oath that they had left there at least 15 days previously, and prohibited bringing into Philadelphia “goods, wares, merchandize, cloathing, or baggage” from New York that were “capable of retaining infection.” Along with its decree, the board published the section of the statute that enabled it to cut off communication with other locales and a section that imposed a $500 fine for obstructing the board and a fine of $200 and a prison sentence of up to three years of hard labor for “any mariner, or other person” who, after the expiration of the quarantine, “shall commit any violence on the person of a member of the board of health, or any of the officers attached to the same, for any thing done in the execution of his duty.” The board published the order in newspapers and issued 200 handbills. On 11 Aug., the Boston Board of Health also put ships arriving at that port from New York under quarantine. In September, the Philadelphia board announced the appearance of “a disease of a malignant aspect” in a portion of the city near the waterfront and prohibited ships from mooring at the adjacent wharves. The board removed its restrictions on contact between Philadelphia and New York City on 31 Oct. (An Act for Establishing an Health Office, and to Secure the City and Port of Philadelphia from the Introduction of Pestilential and Contagious Diseases [Philadelphia, 1803], 3-4, 23-5; Aurora, 5, 10 Aug.; Gazette of the United States, 6 Aug.; New York Daily Advertiser, 11 Aug.; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 13 Sep., 1 Nov.).

1Thus in Tr.

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