EDWARD RUSHTON was born at Liverpool, on the 13th November, 1756. His father, Thomas Rushton, had been originally brought up to the business of a hair-dresser, and, having saved a little money, became afterwards a dealer in spirits. That he was a man of some cultivation of mind, is evinced by a poem, entitled "Party Dissected," or, "Plain Truth, by a Plain Dealer," which he published in the year 1770. This poem contains some good lines and some nervous passages; but, like the works of most uneducated writers, is extremely irregular, and deficient in exact taste. As the title indicates, its subject is political, and written in a high tone of Toryism, loyally describing the discontents of the time to envy, hatred, malice, and uncharitableness, and ridiculing in a vein of happy satire the inveterate propensity of English handicraftsmen to suspend their several employments for the more interesting occupation of settling affairs of state.
When his son Edward had attained his sixth year, he procured for him admittance into that department of the Free School of Liverpool where the education of youth is limited to English reading, writing, and arithmetic, in these branches of knowledge the juvenile pupil made a steady and satisfactory progress. Among other books, which, at that early period of his life, attracted his attention, was Anson's Voyage. The perusal of this interesting volume led him to think of the sea service as the means of his immediate support, and to look to the command of a vessel as the ultimate object of his future hopes; and for this service he seemed well qualified by the indications of a vigorous bodily frame, and by the active energies of his mind. He was accordingly bound apprentice when between ten and eleven years of age to Messrs. Watt and Gregson, at that time respectable merchants in Liverpool. When he had attained the age of sixteen, an opportunity occurred for his evincing his superior skill in seamanship, and the cool intrepidity of his spirit. On its approach to the harbour of Liverpool, the ship on board of which he served was overtaken by a violent tempest, and became apparently unmanageable. The captain and the crew gave themselves up as lost, and, wandering about the deck in despair, suffered the vessel to drive before the wind. In the midst of the consequent confusion Rushton, seizing the helm, called the men to their duty. In times of difficulty, superiority of intellect almost always meets with obedience. The sailors resumed their efforts, and the ship was saved. For this spirited conduct Rushton received the thanks of the captain and crew; he was advanced to the situation of second-mate, and, at the expiration of his apprenticeship, it was noted with due applause as an endorsement on his indentures.
At this period the African trade was the chief source of the wealth of Liverpool; and so much was the general mind of that town familiarized to the process of that abominable traffic, that people of the greatest respectability, and even of the most amiable character, felt no more remorse at the idea of buying and selling thousands of their fellow-man, than the butcher experiences at the idea of slaughtering his cattle. It ought not then to be regarded as a matter of surprise or of reproach, that our youthful seaman was induced by the prospect of bettering his fortune to quit the West Indiaman in which he had learnt the rudiments of his profession, to go, in quality of mate, on a slaving voyage to the coast of Guinea.
But Rushton was naturally kind-hearted: he could not witness the distresses of human beings without strong emotions of compassion; and the following incident had prepared his mind to regard with pity the sufferings of the negro race. In one of his voyages to the West Indies he had contracted an acquaintance with a black man named Quamina, whom he taught to read. On some occasion he was dispatched to the shore with a boat's crew, of which Quamina was one. On its return to the ship, the boat was upset in the surf, and the sailors swept by the billows from the keel, to which, in the first confusion, they had all adhered. In this extremity, Rushton swam towards a small water-cask, which was floating at a distance. Quamina had gained the point of safety before him; and when the generous negro saw that his friend was too much exhausted to reach the cask, he pushed it towards him, bade him "good-bye," and sunk to rise no more! With a mind thus predisposed in favor of the despised sons of Africa, it will easily be believed, that when Rushton witnessed the horrors of their captivity on board a slave vessel, he was moved with compassion, and that he bitterly regretted having engaged himself in his present employment. These emotions were heightened into indignation on his witnessing some brutal treatment to which the slaves under his hourly observation were subjected by the caprice and cruelty of his superiors. His remonstrances on one occasion were so pointed and so unreserved, that the captain accused him of mutiny, and threatened to put him in irons.
Happy had it been for him had this threat been carried into execution. The restraint of imprisonment would have saved him from one of the heaviest calamities which can befall a human being — a calamity which tinged many of his future years with melancholy. When the vessel in which he sailed was on its passage to Dominica, almost the whole of the wretched cargo were seized with the ophthalmia. In these circumstances, the other officers, whose peculiar duty it was to attend them, durst not venture into the hold, and they were left in a state of neglect and destitution. But Rushton, listening to the call of humanity, went daily amongst them, and administered to them all the relief in his power. He was soon attacked by a violent inflammation in his eyes, on the subsiding of which, at the termination of three weeks, it was discovered that his left eye was totally destroyed, and the right entirely covered with an opacity of the cornea.
On his return home, his father took him up to London, in order to obtain the advice of the most skilful surgical practitioners on his deplorable case. Among others, he consulted the celebrated Baron Wenzel, oculist to the King: but neither the Baron, nor any of his brethren of the profession, could render him the least service; and Rushton returned to Liverpool in a state of hopeless blindness, his bodily energies virtually annihilated, and his mental progress obstructed, knowledge being to him at one entrance completely shut out.
His father's conduct in sparing no expense in his attempt to procure by medical aid an alleviation of his calamity, evinced that he was then actuated by the kindness of parental feelings; but in giving a sketch of Rushton's life, it must be stated that this kindness was but of short duration. Mrs. Rushton being dead, his father had married a second wife, a woman of considerable talent, but of a most violent temper. She looked with the eye of a step-mother on the children of the first marriage; and though the younger was treated by her with some degree of consideration, an interference on his part to prevent the ill-treatment of one of his sisters so strongly excited the indignation of his father, that, helpless as he was, he banished him from his house, and doomed him to subsist as he could on the miserable allowance of four shillings a week.
This was surely calculated to overwhelm a man of an ordinary mind; but Rushton was endued with a spirit which prompted him to grapple with difficulties, and to encounter the storms of life without dismay. In his extremity, the kindness of an aunt had accommodated him with an apartment; but the scantiness of her means disabled her from rendering him any other assistance. He was therefore compelled to provide himself with food by the allowance allotted to him by his father; which was, moreover, diminished by threepence per week, which he gave to a boy for reading to him an hour or two every evening. The aid of this humble servant, and a few friends who occasionally supplied his office, enabled Rushton to beguile the weary length of seven years; during which he was thus condemned to penury and destitution. He converted, however, the apparent misery of his circumstances to considerable mental profit. The course of reading which he adopted was in the highest degree judicious. He availed himself of this period of leisure to become well acquainted with the works of Addison, Steele, Johnson, and other celebrated English Essayists. His love of his late profession led him to listen with eagerness to the reading of voyages and travels, and he familiarized himself with history. From his father he inherited a fondness for the muse, which he gratified by the perusal of the works of our best poets. The striking passages he stored up in a most retentive memory. The Plays of Shakspeare were familiar to him, but Milton was his favorite; and he was assiduous in making himself master not only of his immortal poems, but also of his prose works, which it is the fashion of the present day too much to neglect.
He spent his numerous solitary hours in meditating on what had been read to him, and in speculations in which a philosophic mind is fond of indulging. He also occasionally amused himself with poetical compositions, which, being handed about in manuscript, and now and then finding their way into a newspaper, gradually brought him into notice, and became the means of his extending his acquaintance with men of cultivated minds. Encouraged by their approbation of his fugitive pieces, in the year 1782 he ventured to appear as an author. To a man of Rushton's warm feelings and range of intellect, the politics of the day, and especially the rise and progress of the American revolutionary war, could not be a matter of indifference: in politics he then followed, as his guide, the great Lord Chatham. With him he "rejoiced that America had resisted" — with him he deprecated the independence of the colonies, as sure to bring on the speedy ruin of the mother country. These ideas he embodied in a poem entitled "The Dismembered Empire," which contains some good poetry, and evinces much patriotic feeling. Events have happily falsified the gloomy predictions of the poet and of the illustrious statesman from whom his opinions on this subject were derived.
Rushton's growing celebrity, and his tranquil submission to the harshness of his destiny, at length softened the rigour of his father, and convinced him of the propriety of his doing something for his son's more comfortable support. But the plan which he adopted for the purpose evinced little feeling and little judgment. He advanced money to establish him and one of his sisters in a tavern at Liverpool. The occupation, however, of tavern-keeping was not congenial to Rushton's taste; and his calamity precluded him from being of much utility in regulating the economy of his little establishment. About this time too, the African slave-trade became a subject of public attention and of parliamentary inquiry; and Rushton was too independent in spirit to suppress his sentiments concerning that nefarious traffic. At that time, to speak irreverently of the King, or even to deny the existence of a God, were in the town of Liverpool venial offences, when compared with the atrocity of condemning the sale and purchase of human flesh. In defiance however of public clamour, Rushton stated his opinions unreservedly on this subject; and in the year 1787 gave full publicity to them in a series of poems entitled "West India Eclogues," which he dedicated to the venerable Dr. Porteus, then Bishop of Chester, who had lately testified his sentiments on the condition of the Africans in a Sermon on "The Civilization, Improvement, and Conversion of the Negro Slaves."
When the philanthropic Mr. Clarkson visited Liverpool for the purpose of collecting evidence on the subject of the details of the slave-trade, he had frequent interviews with Rushton, from whom he derived much correct information, and useful directions as to the quarters in which he might pursue his inquiries.
It may easily be believed, that a tavern-keeper who was using his exertions to aid in putting an end to a traffic upon which the commonalty of Liverpool were industriously taught that their subsistence depended, could not be very popular, and that his tavern was not very much frequented. Rushton at length relinquished it, and purchased a share in a weekly newspaper called "The Liverpool Herald," of which he undertook the editorship. This employment was congenial to his taste; it opened a field for the display of his talents, and under his guidance the paper was conducted in a most respectable manner. But the prospects of emolument with which he now gratified his fancy soon vanished. It became his duty as a public journalist to record an act of atrocity perpetrated in the port of Liverpool by a press-gang, which he did in the language of just indignation. This excited the resentment of the lieutenant of the gang, who called at the office of the "Herald," and with loud threats demanded an apology. Rushton was too steady in the cause of truth and justice to make the least concession; and as the short way of stifling a statement of facts by a prosecution for libel was not then so generally known to our military and naval men as it is in these more enlightened days, the lieutenant retired to vent his spleen in unavailing curses.
This event, however, alarmed the fears of Rushton's partner, and brought on a discussion as to the principles on which the paper was in future to be conducted: this induced Rushton to withdraw from the concern.
He was now once more thrown upon the world; and the gloom of his prospects was deepened by his anxiety for others who were dependent on his exertions for their subsistence.
He was a husband and a father, having married whilst he kept the tavern. On revolving many plans for his future maintenance, he fixed upon the business of a bookseller, for which his habits and pursuits certainly rendered him well qualified.
Rushton having opened a bookseller's shop in Paradise Street, soon obtained a share of custom, which happily convinced him of the judiciousness of his choice of an occupation. His business was not indeed very extensive, nor was his establishment a splendid one. But he made profits: his early habits of economy were still exemplified in his domestic arrangements. The grim spectre of want no longer crossed his view: he became comparatively easy in his circumstances, was cheerful and happy.
In speculative politics, Rushton had imbibed, from the study of the works of his favorite Milton, a leaning to republican principles; and when he found that his country had not (as he had apprehended would be the case) been ruined by the concession of independence to the United States, he watched with curiosity and interest the operation of a republican form of government on the continent of North America. Here, though he found much to applaud, he could not but deem it a sad instance of inconsistency, that a nation, which had struggled so long, and had made so many sacrifices in the assertion of its own freedom, should tolerate the slavery of negroes in its own dominions, and wondered that Washington, the great champion of independence, should hold several hundreds of his fellow-creatures in bondage. On this subject, in the year 1797, he addressed to the General a letter of remonstrance. This letter is ably written, and its principles are irrefragable. It is, however, more strong than courteous — more convincing than conciliatory; and the Ex-President of the American republic testified his displeasure at its contents, by returning it to the writer in a blank cover. As this circumstance became a subject of animadversion, the letter was published in order to enable those who might be interested in the matter to judge between the General and himself.
From time to time, after his settlement in Liverpool, Rushton had composed a variety of fugitive pieces of poetry, some of which had appeared in newspapers and periodical publications, whilst others slept in his portfolio, and were sent to his friend in manuscript. From these he was frequently advised to make a selection, which would furnish matter for a small volume, which, after some hesitation, was published in 1806.
The ensuing year presented an era in Rushton's life, distinguished by an event equally grateful and astonishing — the restoration of his sight. In the autumn of 1805, he had received various accounts of successful practice, which led him to entertain a high opinion of the skill of Mr. Gibson of Manchester, as an oculist. He was himself well acquainted with the anatomy of the eye, and still cherished a lingering hope that his case was not in itself desperate; he therefore went over to Manchester. When he had ascertained to his own satisfaction the grounds of Mr. Gibson's expectations of success, he put himself unreservedly into his hands: the process was tedious and painful, when at length light revisited his eyes, after the long interval of thirty years. His feelings on this occasion are described in lines addressed to his skilful benefactor, which do equal honour to his genius and his heart. His sight, though somewhat dim, was so far restored, that he could accurately distinguish colours and the lineaments of the human countenance; he could even discern and discriminate distant objects, and by the aid of a glass he could read tolerably sized print.
The remainder of his life was little varied by incident. In the new gratification of reading he spent his leisure hours usefully and pleasantly. Being more qualified than in former years to enjoy the pleasures of society, he enlarged a little the circle of his acquaintance, and his days passed on in happiness, which was, however, painfully interrupted in the year 1811 by the death of his wife, who had been a kind and faithful partner of his various fortunes, and of a daughter, who was admired and esteemed by all who knew her. He survived them about three years. His death was occasioned by a rash attempt to get rid of a fit of illness by means of an empirical medicine.
Notwithstanding his habitual temperance, and his general abstinence from all fermented liquors, he was occasionally visited by severe attacks of the gout; to dispel which, he had for three or four years previous to his death been in the habit of taking the "eau medicinale." On the approach of a fit in the month of November 1814, he had, as usual, recourse to this dangerous medicine, which, contrary to its usual course of operation, brought on violent sickness: he languished with occasional alterations of symptoms till Tuesday the 22nd of November, when, at five o'clock in the afternoon, he died without a struggle, and apparently without pain.
Edward Rushton was a man of enlightened intellect, and of uncommon mental energy. Estimating action and character by the scale of principle, he regulated his own conduct by maxims of the strictest integrity. In the midst of poverty he was proud and independent in spirit: perhaps he carried his idea of independence too far, in occasionally declining, though with due respect, the offered courtesies of kindness and hospitality on the part of his friends who were superior to him in station and fortune. As a husband and a parent he was exemplary; and, to deserving characters poorer than himself, he was hospitable and liberal. To oppression of any kind he was a determined enemy. As a politician, however, he was rather a speculator than an actor. His principles in politics were, in his maturer years, republican, and of course rather the subject of private discussion than of assertion in public debate.
It is pleasing to contemplate in the foregoing sketch the portraiture of a man of native talent and enlightened mind struggling with difficulties and overcoming them — cultivating his intellectual powers in the midst of penury, rendered more hopeless by the loss of sight — rising by his prudent industry above his distresses, and gradually advancing to a competency in his worldly circumstances.
In early days,
If kings were made by men, and that they were,
And still should be, the light of nature shows—
How comes it then that earth is fill'd with slaves?
How comes it then that man, this reasoning thing,
This being with such faculties endow'd—
This being, form'd to trace the Great First Cause
Thro' many a wanderous path — how comes it then
That he, in every clime should cringe, should crouch,
Should bend th' imploring eye and trembling knee
To mere self-raised oppressors? Heavens! to think
That not a tithe of all the sons of men
E'er kiss'd thy sacred cup, O Liberty!
To find where'er imagination roves
Millions on millions prostrate in the dust,
Whilst o'er their necks, with proud contemptuous mien,
Kings, emperors, sultans, sophies, what you will,
With all their pamper'd minions sorely press,
Grinding God's creatures to the very bone.
Yet man submits to all! — he tamely licks
The foot upraised to trample on his rights
He shakes his chains, and in their horrid clank
Finds melody; else, why not throw them off?
Seven hundred millions of the human kind
Are held in base subjection — and by whom?
Why, strange to tell, (and what futurity,
As children at the tales of witch or sprite,
Will bless themselves to hear) by a small troop
Of weak capricious despots, fiends accursed,
Who drench the earth with tides of human gore,
And call the havoc glory! Britons, yes!
Seven hundred millions of your fellow-men,
All form'd like you the blessing to enjoy,
Now drag the servile chain. — Oh! fie upon 't!
'Twere better far within the clay-cold cell
To waste away, than be, at such a price,
Poor whip-gall'd slaves! Oh! 'tis debasement all;
'Tis filthy cowardice, and shows that man
Merits too oft, by his degenerate deeds,
The yoke which bends him down. Power's limpid stream
Must have its source within a people's hearts;
What flows not thence is turbid tyranny.
Rank are the despot weeds which now o'errun
This ample world, and choke each goodly growth;
But that supine loud vaunting thing, call'd man,
Might soon eradicate so foul a pest,
Would he exert those powers which God has given
To be the means of good; and what more good,
More rational, nay more approaching Heaven,
Than the strong joys which flow from Freedom's fount.
You radiant orb, vast emblem of the Power
Who form'd him, beams alike on all mankind.
The air which, as a mantle girts the world,
Is too a common good; and even so
With amplest bounty, Liberty is given
To man, whate'er his tint, swart, brown, or fair;
Whate'er his clime, hot, cold, or temperate;
Whate'er his mode of faith, whate'er his state,
Or rich or poor, great Nature cries, "Be Free!"
How comes it then that man neglects the call?
Nay, like the callous felon, chuckles loud
Amidst corroding chains? Can that Great Cause
Who made man free, both mind and body free,
And gave his reason, as a sentinel,
To guard the glorious gift — can He be pleased
To see His rich donation cast away,
Or pass'd with inattention, as not worth
Th' acceptance of his creatures? No, my friends,
Whate'er God gives, He gives to be enjoyed,
But not abused; and the mean wretch, who 'neath
A tyrant's feet this precious jewel throws,
Spurns the vast Power who placed it in his hands.
How comes it then that minds are thus abased?
That man, though Nature loudly calls, "Be Free,"
Has closed his eyes against her, and become
A mean, a grovelling wretch? Why, thus it is,
O Superstition! thou who point'st to man,
And call'st the fragile piece a demi-god;
Yes! then, who wanderest o'er the world, array'd
In pure Religion's mantle — thou, whose breath
Conveys those potent opiates to the brain
Which bring on reason's sleep. O! dark-brow'd fiend,
All, all these works are thine!
West Indian Eclogues may be classed amongst the most finished of Rushton's compositions. The descriptions which they contain of natural scenery are correct, appropriate, and striking. In diction they are simple but elegant, and in incident and dramatic effect, highly interesting.