October 13, 2019

‘Rush’ Resuscitates a ‘Footnoted’ Founding Father

Among the remarkable individuals whose names are recorded as signers of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush has been mostly overlooked. Of course, he was a physician rather than a politician, as we discover in “Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father” by Stephen Fried (Crown), a biography with the color, detail and pace of a compelling historical novel. 

From the first page, Fried conjures up Rush as a flesh-and-blood human being rather than a steel-point engraving. “[T]all, lean, and handsome with active blue-gray eyes and an aquiline nose,” Rush is described as a man with a notably large head who was “overfull of ideas he couldn’t keep to himself.” He graduated from the college we now call Princeton at the age of 14, studied medicine in Edinburgh and London, set up his medical practice at the age of 23 and took his seat in the Second Continental Congress at age 30. 

“Energized by the contagious spirit of the congress, Rush went on to serve the revolution as a doctor, a politician, a social reformer, an educational visionary, and even an activist editor,” writes Fried. “The struggle, he said, would be to balance ‘science, religion, liberty, and good government.’ He would spend the rest of his life trying to embody that balance.”

Rush figures importantly in the early history of the United States. He was a protégé of Benjamin Franklin and a mentor to Thomas Paine. He was a confidante of our first presidents, “who came to rely on Rush for medical care, intellectual stimulation, and the best local gossip,” as Fried writes, and who were perfectly willing to confide even their “bathroom habits” to the good doctor. When Meriwether Lewis was preparing for his daring journey of exploration of the Far West, President Thomas Jefferson sent him first to Benjamin Rush for a short course in field medicine from the man who had come to be regarded as “the American Hippocrates,” which made Rush “the de facto medical director for the Lewis and Clark expedition.”

“At a moment when government in the United States seems to be an amateur sport, Benjamin Rush reminds us that experience, expertise and a commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth are essential to the preservation of democracy.”

Rush recognized, for example, that good medicine is arguably more important than advanced weaponry in an army: “Fatal experience has taught the people of America the truth … that a greater proportion of men perish with sickness in all armies than fall by the sword,” he wrote in a pamphlet on military medicine, and he urged Gen. George Washington to inoculate the Continental Army against smallpox. He was both “intrigued and horrified” by alcoholism and the “lunatics” who were put on display to members of the public who paid an admission fee to gawk at them. “He wanted, once and for all, to dispel the view of ‘madness’ as a failure of will or belief or philosophical perspective, and to recast ‘mental derangement’ as a disease of the brain,” concludes Fried.

Rush championed the separation between church and state in the new American democracy. “He believed in the Bible as a tool for teaching morality, but he was knowledgeable about other belief systems as well and respected them,” Fried explains. “He had studied the Old Testament, the ‘Hebrew Bible,’ and counted Jews among his friends and patients. He had long lived among Quakers, who didn’t believe in taking any religious oaths. He greatly respected many physicians and scientists, starting with William Cullen in Scotland and Benjamin Franklin, who were skeptical about organized religion.”

Yet Rush is not depicted as a plaster saint. Fried points out that Rush possessed “an oversized ego.” Although Rush was an active participant in the American Revolution, he once insisted that George Washington “must be invested with dictatorial power … or we are undone.” Although Rush played a prominent role in the ongoing struggle to prevent recurrent epidemics of yellow fever, Alexander Hamilton complained that Rush employed a harsh but ineffective treatment of purges and bloodletting.

Rush, like many of his contemporaries, clung to some crackpot ideas. For example, he insisted that “the highest degrees of civilization” can revert to “the savage life.” Just as “[t]he individuals of the human race are once men, and twice children,” he wrote, “nations are once civilized and twice savage.” According to Fried, Rush believed that proof could be found among Native Americans, Jewish people and African-Americans.

On his death in 1813 at the age of 68, Rush was revered. “O my friend, my friend, my ancient, my constant, my unshaken Friend, My Brother, art thou gone, gone forever?” keened John Adams. “Who can estimate thy worth, who can appreciate thy loss? To thy Country, to thy Family, to thy Friends, to Science, to Literature, to the World at large? To a Character which in every relation of Life shone resplendent?” Not long afterward, however, “He became a footnoted founder, a second-tier signer,” as Fried observes. “As a result, many Americans know very little about Benjamin Rush.”

At a moment when government in the United States seems to be an amateur sport, Rush reminds us that experience, expertise and a commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth are essential to the preservation of democracy. For that reason alone, “Rush” offers not only a glimpse into the time and place that gave us the constitutional democracy that our presidents swear to defend, but also — and perhaps more importantly — a reminder of what is at stake when they fail to do so. n

Stephen Fried will appear at the Sperber Community Library, located at American Jewish University, to speak about and sign copies of “Rush” at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 28. To register, call (310) 440-1246 or go to visit the page.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.