Let us now praise a few of the unsung heroes of Thomas Jefferson’s world. We spend so much time talking about the major figures — Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Madison, Monroe, John and Abigail Adams and John Marshall — that we often forget that the era was filled with remarkable people of the second and third ranks. Great times make for remarkable lives. These are individuals who played significant minor roles in the Age of Enlightenment, the era of Revolutions and the birth of the most interesting experimental nation in history. For the moment, here are just three men who figured in the life of Thomas Jefferson.
Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) was the recipient of one of the most important letters that Jefferson ever wrote. That in itself is to make a big claim for him. The letter was written on Jan. 26, 1799. In an era before political parties, party caucuses and conventions, party platforms and all the trappings of modern elections, Jefferson laid out in this private letter what was essentially his presidential platform for the election of 1800. It’s worth your Googling the letter sometime so you can read it in its entirety. Among other things Jefferson wrote:
“I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt: and not for a multiplication of officers & salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of it’s being a public blessing. I am for relying, for internal defence, on our militia solely till actual invasion, and for such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbours from such depredations as we have experienced: and not for a standing army in time of peace which may overawe the public sentiment; nor for a navy which by it’s own expences and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, will grind us with public burthens, and sink us under them. I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment.”
This goes on for several more important paragraphs. Jefferson knew that Gerry would share this letter — or more likely handwritten excerpts from this letter — with others, who would in turn share the contents with individuals of their own political network. In fact, Jefferson knew that within a few months influential individuals throughout America would have read these words and been in a position to assure everyone they knew that Jefferson was the right candidate in 1800 for the anti-Federalist coalition that sought to remove John Adams from the presidency and keep Alexander Hamilton out of it. Since Jefferson refused to publish his platform or anything else in the nation’s newspapers — partly because he wanted to maintain the illusion that he was a simple farmer philosopher who was aloof from the grubbiness of politics — he used this informal method of circulating his vision of America. He did not need to tell Gerry to circulate its contents; he just knew he would. And it worked — such was the nature of the low-tech social media of his era.
Elbridge Gerry was not a particularly close friend of Jefferson’s, but he was from the right state — Massachusetts — and he had a reputation for being an independent member of the emerging Republican Party. Gerry had been a figure in the famous X,Y,Z Affair in Paris in 1797-98, when French officials bullied President Adams’ three American peace commissioners, Gerry included, and then demanded a substantial bribe before they would even consider a peace settlement to end France’s undeclared naval war against the United States.
Abigail Adams once said that Gerry had a kink in the head — I’m not quite sure why.
In 1810, Gerry was elected governor of Massachusetts. During his tenure, he permitted the reorganization of the electoral districts of Massachusetts in such a self-serving way that he gave birth to an indispensable political word: Gerrymander, which means redistricting for strict party advantage. I’m sure it would kill him to think that that is his primary historical legacy after a long, interesting, and important political career.
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is the one who convinced Jefferson to compile what turned out to be the Jefferson Bible.
Priestley is one of the founders of the Unitarian Church because he found it impossible — as a scientist — to accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. His freethinking spirit, coupled with his scientific experiments, coupled with his liberal politics and endorsement of the French Revolution, caused the usual Sean Hannity-like ruffians to destroy his home and laboratory in Birmingham, England, and to hector him until he relocated in the New World in 1794. Jefferson met him in Philadelphia. They became a mutual admiration society. Priestley rejected Calvinism, predestination, original sin and the Fall of Mankind. Like Jefferson he flirted with the radical idea of the perfectibility of man.
Priestley’s “History of the Corruptions of Christianity” (1782) was a book that Jefferson read carefully — and several times. Historian Edwin S. Gaustad writes that “this one book influenced Jefferson’s religious views profoundly — in all likelihood more profoundly than any other single volume.” Priestley believed that Jesus was a supremely highly evolved human being, but not divine, not the Son of God. This view harmonized perfectly with Jefferson’s own rational and anti-trinitarian views and gave him the confidence to go through the New Testament during his first term as president to remove those passages that distorted the biography of the historical Jesus and loaded that gifted rabbi with pronouncements Jefferson believed he could never have uttered. This, completed in 1804 but never published in Jefferson’s lifetime, was the “Thomas Jefferson Bible,” first printed by the Congress of the United States in 1904. Imagine Congress publishing a Unitarian Bible today!
Priestley’s greatest contribution to the Enlightenment was in science, not religion. Using an array of primitive chemical equipment, he identified 10 different gaseous constituents of air, including, on Aug. 1, 1774, oxygen itself. This was one of the great discoveries in the history of chemistry. Who would not want to be known as the discoverer of oxygen? We take for granted that air is not just, well, air, but it was the curious and methodical spirit of the Enlightenment that subdivided air into its constituent gaseous elements.
Back in Birmingham, before he was hounded out of his home country, Priestley had been a member of the famous international Lunar Society, an Enlightenment social club so named because it met on the night of the full moon when its scattered members could walk home after an evening of the liveliest and most rational conversation under the direction of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. Jefferson’s College of William and Mary mentor William Small was for a time a member of the Lunar society.
Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) is an equally fascinating character. He is best known as the hero of the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he is so much more than that.
Educated at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), he went to Edinburgh to receive his medical degree, then toured the European continent for a time. When he returned to the American colonies in 1769, he became the first professor of chemistry in the New World. He was just 23 years old. Well before the American Revolution, he had written a pamphlet severely critical of the institution of slavery, and he founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first anti-slavery institution in America.
He befriended the recent immigrant Thomas Paine, encouraged him to write the pamphlet that made him famous in England, France, and the United States, and convinced him to change the title from Paine’s choice “Plain Truth” to the much more effective “Common Sense.”
During the Revolutionary War, Rush studied the appalling disease rates among Washington’s troops and wrote newspaper articles recommending greater hygiene, isolation of latrines from the camps and a new haircut that would discourage the proliferation of vermin. Yes, Benjamin Rush invented the G.I. buzz cut. He convinced Commander in Chief Washington to inoculate his troops using the best new method. This procedure cut the scourge of smallpox in the close-quartered camps by magnitudes.
Rush was a good friend of Thomas Jefferson. In 1803, Jefferson asked him to serve as the medical adviser to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson sent his protégé, Meriwether Lewis, to Philadelphia to take a short course in the Enlightenment. That included lessons in botanical taxonomy from Benjamin Smith Barton, lessons in latitude and longitude from Robert Patterson, and medical training from Rush. Among other things, Rush — who was a strong proponent of bleeding and purging — provided 50 dozen of his celebrated “bilious pills,” notorious for their capacity to eliminate everything in the digestive tract in a couple of hours, and renamed by Lewis’s men Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers.
Rush later became the father of dream psychology in the New World. He took a lively interest in the causes and treatment of mental illness, and, in fact, published America’s first textbook on psychiatry, “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind.”
And, of course, Benjamin Rush was the individual who refused to permit John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to go their graves unreconciled. It was Rush who waged a multiyear campaign to urge, shame and cajole the two stubborn old patriarchs to renew their correspondence and their friendship. His persistence paid off, and Jan. 1, 1812, the person he called the North Pole of the American Revolution, John Adams of Braintree, Mass., wrote his first tentative epistle to the South Pole of the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson of Monticello. What ensued was the most fruitful and fascinating correspondence by former presidents in American history.
My list of extraordinary second-tier individuals of the Founding era could go on and on: Jefferson’s protégé, William Short, the Italian patriot and winemaker Philip Mazzei, the historian Mercy Otis Warren, the astronomer David Rittenhouse, the designer of the American flag Francis Hopkinson and dozens more. But they for another time.