Former Yorker Richard Rush Gets Smithsonian Gold
Richard Rush (1780-1859) served the United States in many important posts at various times, including Secretary of the Treasury, Attorney General, acting Secretary of State, Minister to Great Britain and Minister to France. The Rush-Bagot Convention (treaty) which he negotiated with Great Britain shortly after the War of 1812 is credited with establishing a peaceful border between the U.S. and Canada, assuring the ensuing long-lasting friendly relationship between the United States and Great Britain.
Rush used his legal and diplomatic skills in 1838 when he traveled to England to claim, for the U.S., the proceeds of James Smithson’s will, which would fund the educational organization we know today as the Smithsonian Institution.
For several years in the late 1820s into the 1830s this distinguished citizen and his family were also citizens of York. For more on Rush, see my previous York Sunday News column below:
Richard Rush Gets the Gold
The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History has reopened after being closed for extensive renovations. A sizable number of York County residents annually visit the Smithsonian’s complex of outstanding museums, most of which are conveniently located less than two hours from York in our nation’s capitol. The Smithsonian Institution was established with funds left by English scientist James Smithson. A former resident of York, Richard Rush, was instrumental in obtaining that legacy.
Richard Rush, the son of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush, was born in Philadelphia in 1780. A brilliant student, he graduated from Princeton at age 17 and was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar to begin practicing law at 20. He successively became Attorney General of Pennsylvania in 1811, United States Attorney General in 1814, and then Minister to Great Britain in 1817. Rush seems to have been the perfect appointee for the latter job, which came at a time shortly after the end of the War of 1812 when American and British relations were still touchy. His diplomacy and charm bore fruit in peaceful agreements concerning disarmament on the Great Lakes and setting a permanent border line between a sizable portion of the United States and Canada. During this time, he also helped devise the Monroe Doctrine against foreign intrusion in the Western Hemisphere. After returning from Great Britain, Rush served as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and ran, unsuccessfully, for Vice President on a ticket with John Quincy Adams in 1828.
The Rushes found they needed to economize when Richard left government service in 1829. Consequently their Philadelphia house was sold and their Washington residence rented out. Richard and Catherine and at least five of their ten children moved to York. This was a good location, as Jacob Emmitt, the landlord of their spacious residence just north of St. Mary’s Church on South George Street, later advertised in the York Gazette, presenting “daily communication with the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Harrisburg.” Catherine Murray Rush was a Baltimore native, so that may have been a factor in choosing York. They also had York friends, including lawyer and politician Charles A. Barnitz, with whom son Benjamin Rush read law during this period. Richard Rush became a Trustee of the York County Academy, a position he held for many years, even after he left York. While living here, Rush became one of the leaders of the national Anti-Masonic movement. He believed that politicians especially should not be members of secret societies; all aspects of their lives should be honest and open.
Shortly after leaving York several years later, Rush was sent by President Andrew Jackson to England to pursue the Smithson bequest. Smithson had died in 1829 and had written in his will that if his nephew, his only heir, died childless, the estate was to go to the “United States of America, to found[ed] at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The nephew died, without children, in 1835, but the nephew’s mother challenged the will in the notoriously cumbersome British Chancery Court. In a remarkably short two years, Rush was awarded the estate on behalf of the U.S. He sold Smithson’s properties, converting the proceeds to 104,960 gold sovereign coins. According to the Smithsonian website, Rush set sail on the aptly named Mediator on July 17, 1838. He arrived in the U.S. six weeks later with Smithson’s mineral collection and library as well as the 11 boxes of gold coins. The sovereigns were turned over to the U.S. Treasury and melted down to yield $508,318.46 worth of gold, a sizable nest egg with which to found one of our country’s premier educational institutions.
In the 1840s, Rush added to his extremely impressive resume by being named Minister to France at age 67. Still, after holding several Cabinet posts and serving as ambassador to two European world powers, he has been said to have viewed his part in obtaining the Smithson legacy his most important public service. York Countians can be proud, that for a while, this well-liked, distinguished personage was one of our own.