Benjamin Rush is considered a Founding Father of the United States. Rush lived in the state of Pennsylvania and was a physician, writer, educator, humanitarian, as well as the founder of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence and attended the Continental Congress. He served as Surgeon General in the Continental army. Later in life, Rush became a professor of chemistry, medical theory, and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite having a wide influence on the development of American government, he is not as widely known as many of his American contemporaries. Rush was also an early opponent of slavery and capital punishment.
He was born in December of 1745 in Byberry, Pennsylvania, some twelve miles from Philadelphia. His father died when Benjamin was six, and his mother placed him in the care of his maternal uncle Dr. Finley who became his teacher and advisor for many years. In 1759 he attended the College of Philadelphia, where he ultimately attained a Bachelor of Arts degree. He continued his education with a Dr. Redman of Philadelphia for four years and then crossed the Atlantic to attend to an M.D. at Edinburgh. He spent several years in Europe studying and practicing Medicine, French, Italian, Spanish, and science. He returned in 1769, opened a private practice in Philadelphia, and was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia.
Rush was active in the Sons of Liberty and was elected to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress. Thomas Paine consulted Rush when writing the profoundly influential pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense. Rush represented Pennsylvania and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also represented Philadelphia at Pennsylvania’s own Constitutional Convention, and got into trouble when he criticized the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.
Benjamin Rush was soon beloved in the city, where he practiced extensively among the poor. His practice was successful, his classes were popular, and he further began to engage in writing that would prove to be of considerable importance to the emerging nation. Rush published the first American textbook on Chemistry. In 1773 he contributed editorial assays to the papers about the Patriot cause and also joined the American Philosophical Society.
The highlight of his involvement in abolishing slavery might be the pamphlet he wrote that appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in 1773 entitled “An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping.” In this first of his many attacks on the social evils of his day, he not only assailed the slave trade, but the entire institution of slavery. Dr. Rush argued scientifically that Negroes were not by nature intellectually or morally inferior. Any apparent evidence to the contrary was only the perverted expression of slavery, which “is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it.”
While Rush was representing Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress (and serving on its Medical Committee), he also used his medical skills in the field. Rush accompanied the Philadelphia militia during the battles after which the British occupied Philadelphia and most of New Jersey and the Continental Congress fled to York, Pennsylvania. The Army Medical Service was in disarray, between the military casualties, extremely high losses due to typhoid, yellow fever and other camp illnesses, political conflicts between Dr.John Morgan and Dr. William Shippen, Jr., and inadequate supplies and guidance from the Medical Committee. Nonetheless, Rush accepted an appointment as surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army. Dr. Rush’s order “Directions for preserving the health of soldiers” became one of the foundations of preventative military medicine and was repeatedly republished, including as late as 1908.
As the war continued and Army forces under General Washington suffered a series of defeats, Rush secretly campaigned for removal of Washington as commander in chief. Rush criticized General George Washington in two handwritten but unsigned letters while still serving under the Surgeon General. One, to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry dated January 12, 1778, quoted General Thomas Conway saying that if not for God’s grace the ongoing war would have been lost by Washington and his weak counselors. Henry forwarded the letter to Washington, despite Rush’s request that the criticism be conveyed orally, and Washington recognized the handwriting. At the time, the Conway Cabal was trying to replace Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief. The letter also relayed General Sullivan’s criticism that forces directly under Washington were undisciplined and mob-like, and contrasted Gates’ army as “a well-regulated family”. Ten days later, Rush wrote John Adams relaying complaints inside Washington’s army, including about “bad bread, no order, universal disgust” and praising Conway, who had been appointed Inspector General.
Shippen sought Rush’s resignation, and received it by the end of the month after Continental Congress delegate John Witherspoon, chairman of a committee to investigate Morgan’s and Rush’s charges of misappropriation and mismanagement against Shippen, told Rush his complaints would not produce reform. Rush later expressed regret for his gossip against Washington. In a letter to John Adams in 1812, Rush wrote, “He [Washington] was the highly favored instrument whose patriotism and name contributed greatly to the establishment of the independence of the United States.” Rush also successfully pleaded with Washington’s biographers Judge Bushrod Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall to delete his association with those stinging words.
Rush’s teaching career and medical practice continued till the end of his life. He became the Professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the consolidated University of Pennsylvania in 1791, where he was a popular figure at the height of his influence in medicine and in social circles. He also remained a social activist, a prominent advocate for the abolition of slavery, an advocate for scientific education for the masses, including women, and for public medical clinics to treat the poor. Rush was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (known today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society), which greatly influenced the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
In 1789 he wrote in Philadelphia newspapers in favor of adopting the Federal constitution. He was then elected to the Pennsylvania convention which adopted that constitution. He was appointed treasurer of the US Mint where he served from 1797 to 1813. Despite his great contributions to early American society, Rush may be more famous today as the man who, in 1812, helped reconcile the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams by encouraging the two former Presidents to resume writing to each other.
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for the Lewis and Clark Expedition under the tutelage of Rush, who taught Lewis about frontier illnesses and the performance of bloodletting. Rush provided the corps with a medical kit that included Turkish opium for nervousness, emetics to induce vomiting, medicinal wine, fifty dozen of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, laxatives containing more than 50% mercury, which the corps called “thunderclappers”. Their meat-rich diet and lack of clean water during the expedition gave the men cause to use them frequently. Though their efficacy is questionable, their high mercury content provided an excellent tracer by which archaeologists have been able to track the corps’ actual route to the Pacific.
Rush advocated Christianity in public life and in education, and sometimes compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah. Dr. Rush regularly attended Christ Church, Philadelphia in Philadelphia and counted William White among his closest friends (and neighbors). Ever the controversialist, Rush became involved in internal disputes over the revised Book of Common Prayer and the splitting of the Episcopal Church from the Church of England, as well as dabbled with Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Unitarianism.
Rush fought for temperance, and public schools, as well as founded the Bible Society at Philadelphia (now known as the Pennsylvania Bible Society), and promoted the American Sunday School Union. When many public schools stopped using the Bible as a textbook, Rush proposed that the U.S. government require such use, as well as furnish an American bible to every family at public expense. In 1806 Rush also proposed inscribing “The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men’s Lives, But To Save Them.” above the doors of courthouses and other public buildings, apparently disregarding current views that such conflicts with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Earlier, on July 16, 1776, Rush had complained to Virginia’s Patrick Henry about a provision in that state’s constitution of 1776 which forbad clergymen from serving in the legislature.
Rush felt that the United States was the work of God: “I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as perfectly satisfied that the Union of the United States in its form and adoption is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament”. In 1798, after the Constitution’s adoption, Rush declared:” The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” Rush also helped Richard Allen found the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Benjamin Rush’s writings contained many notes about the less well known signers of the Declaration that came from his observations on the floor of congress. Other members of congress, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams foremost, had some harsh observations to make about Rush. He was handsome, well-spoken, a gentleman and a very attractive figure-he was also a gossip and was quick to rush to judgment about others. He was supremely confident of his own opinion and decisions, yet shallow and very unscientific in practice. His chief accomplishment as a physician was in the practice of bleeding the patient. It was said that he considered bleeding to be a cure for nearly any ailment. Even when the practice began to decline, he refused to reconsider the dangers of it. He died at the age of 68 at his home in Philadelphia, the most celebrated physician in America. He is buried along with his wife Julia in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, not far from where Benjamin Franklin is buried.