Rush, Benjamin (b. Byberry, Pa., Jan. 4, 1746; d. Philadelphia, Pa., Apr. 19, 1813).


Doctor, philosopher, and reformer, Benjamin, Rush was one of the most fascinating members of an extraordinary generation of American Revolutionaries. Best known as a pioneer of medicine and psychiatry in the Unitd States, he was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and physician to the Continental Arrn,v Perhaps more important, Rush was a revolutionary social thinker whose own addition to the ferrnent of thought about the American future addressed problems relatively untouched by the great Constitution-makers. He emphasized the need not only to create a republican political structure, but also to transform everyday assumptions, manners, and morals so that common Americans would honor and defend the Republic. Toward that end, Rush developed a remarkable agenda for social and person, change: antislavery, temperance, abolition of wit abolition of the death penalty, humane treatment of criminals and the insane, and educational reform,

Born just outside of Philadelphia, Rush was steeped, in the vivid providential legacy of the Great Awakening. He and his mother (his father died when Rush was five) attended the church of the Awakening minister, Gilbert Tennent. At age eight Rush boarded at the school of the Reverend Samuel Finley, whose sermon Christ Triumphing, and Satan Raging (1741) argued that the Awakening's revivals and the opposition they engendered signified nothing less than the prophesied battle between the forces of God and the Devil that would precede the millennium. Finally, at age 14, Rush entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), presided over by another Awakener, the Reverend Samuel Davies. Late in 1760, after consultation with Davies and Finley, Rush chose a career in medicine. Six years after beginning his apprenticeship, he traveled to Edinburgh for further training in medicine.

Meanwhile, tensions between England and the colonies had erupted in the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765. Rush had supported the colonial position. While in Scotland, fellow students exposed him to doctrines that made sense of the colonial cause-Common Sense philosophy and Republicanism. He embraced these ideas with religious fervor, forging their insights with those of medicine and millennial Christianity into an increasingly unified social vision. Thus, even before the American Revolution, Rush responded to the pleas of his friend Anthony Benezet, a Quaker antislavery activist, with An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (1773), in which he combined economic and common sense moral arguments with visions of America's republican destiny and threats of God's vengeance should slavery continue.

When independence and war came, Rush worked tirelessly as a member of the Continental Congress and as medical adviser to the army to improve the health of the patriot army. He applied to the patriot cause the same unflinching self-scrutiny that informed his antislavery pamphlet. He sought in the actions of individual Americans a virtue as perfect as his dream of millennial republican revolution.

Thus, when the war was won, Rush only occasionally succumbed to optimism about the future. He worried his way through the years of the Confederation, and even with the Constitution in hand he predicted momentous tasks ahead. "There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of American Revolution with those of the late American u,ar, " Rush noted in 1787. "The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution" (quoted by D'Elia, P. 5). Republican political structures in place, the American people must now be reeducated to their very fiber with the habits and values of Republican virtue. Rush devoted much of the remainder of his life to this task. Rush based his Republican vision on a scientific doctrine that lay at the core of his medical system: environmentalism. He argued that although the capacity for choosing good over evil was innate inhumans, its development was deeply affected by the outer environment and the condition of the body in which it was housed. Clarity of thought and, ultimately, the choice for republican virtue instead of profligacy depended upon exposure to correct ideas and upon a disciplined nurturing of those ideas by the proper diet, choice of drinks, style of labor, amount of sleep, and degree of cleanliness. The individual must also be exposed to proper preaching, correct medicine, and moral forms of punishment and government. In the late 1780s and 1790s Rush drew visionary blueprints for just such a republican environment. He felt that education was crucial, and created plans for systems-from the field school to the university level-which were to train "men, citizens, and Christians" rather than "scholars," and indeed to "convert men into republican machines" (Selected Writings, P. 92). He argued that schools should teach an "American language with propriety and grace" so as to create pride in the new country (P. 93). He included complementary plans for female education in republican virtue, for he saw women as in some ways the most important educators. He recommended that educational games replace combative ones in the school yard, and that punishments as well move from the corporal to the educational. As for personal habits, Rush combined medical and sociological proofs in arguing against alcohol. He showed that drink might doom the moral fabric of society. Rush produced temperance pamphlets whose influence would stretch through the mid-nineteenth century. And he continued his war against slavery. Rush predicated his program on the maintenance of selfless commitment to community, a notion sorely tested by the rise of the party system, the debate over the Embargo and the War of 1812. Indeed, Rush died fearing that the republican experiment had failed. Yet he left as his legacy a way of thinking about republican virtue and specific social issues that deeply influenced later nineteenth-century reformers. And he posed questions about the preservation of political and social values in a democracy that still haunt us today.

 

Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 17461813 (New York: Norton, 1966).

Donald J. D'Elia, Benjamin Rush: Philosopher of the Ametican Revolution, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., 64, pt 5 (Philadelphia, 1974).