Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Thomas Jefferson’s Hero? (NU209025)

John Rushworth, that is. Who? I hear you ask. Well, the third President of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was something of a fan of this now largely forgotten native of Acklington Park, a settlement a few miles to the south-west of Warkworth in Northumberland.

Rushworth was born in 1612 to a very well-to-do family with Yorkshire roots. The somewhat remote site of his birth did nothing to hinder his progress in life, however, progressing to Oxford University, from where he graduated in 1640. He became a student barrister, and thence clerk-assistant to the House of Commons, having made the acquaintance of King Charles I – and even married the sister of the future Speaker of the House. When all hell broke loose a year or so later, Rushworth became a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, with whom he had much in common, both politically and religiously. When the English Civil War commenced, he became Secretary to General Fairfax as well as Secretary to the Council of War.

John Rushworth effectively became the first ever official chronicler of a major war, being present at many of the big battles which ensued during 1642-51. He was also involved with negotiations with the king, as well as events surrounding his trial and execution (though he was not a signatory to the death warrant). Oliver Cromwell appointed Rushworth his personal Secretary during his ‘reign’, and was given much in the way of new responsibilities and roles thenceforth, much of them related to law reform.

John Milton, John Bunyan and Samuel Pepys were all close friends of his, and he became MP for Berwick on several occasions over the ensuing decades. In 1659, a year after Cromwell’s death, he published his famous Historical Collections (aka The Rushworth Papers), effectively a chronicle of the Civil War years (if a somewhat biased one), in which he espoused his methods and his reasoning. As Richard Cromwell’s power ebbed away during 1659-60, Rushworth, as Secretary to the Council of State, became, briefly, a very influential figure.

Despite the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Rushworth managed to maintain positions of power, and was even made a Knight of the Order of the Bath in 1661. But it wasn’t to last. King Charles II never could quite forgive and forget, and Rushworth was eventually tried and imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison in 1684. He died in 1690, isolated from his family (he married and had four daughters) in a damp room in Rule's Court, Southwark, depressed, under-nourished, and suffering from senile dementia, aged 78: “where, being reduced to his second childship, for his memory was quite decayed by taking too much brandy to keep up his spirits, he quietly gave up the ghost in his lodging in a certain alley there, called Rule’s Court, on 12 May 1690”.

When, in 1890, King’s Bench Prison was demolished, ‘Rushworth School’ was built on the site and the thoroughfare was renamed ‘Rushworth Street’. His writings, however, found greatest favour in the US where they served as a source of inspiration for Thomas Jefferson. Rushworth's Historical Collections occupied pride of place in the great man’s library and he often quoted from them. Rushworth’s views of Charles I as a monarch who had “declared war on his own people” were later echoed in words by Thomas Jefferson and others when writing about the reign of George III and his actions during the War of Independence.

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