Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush, the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father
By Stephen Fried
Crown. 608 pp. $30
Dr. Benjamin Rush
The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation
By Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo. 300 pp. $28
Reviewed by Scott Manning
Buried in Christ Church Cemetery is Philadelphia's homegrown Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a figure whose credentials will baffle anyone unfamiliar with his legacy. A short resumé would include signer of the Declaration of Independence, founder of Dickinson College, and treasurer of the U.S. Mint. He was a proponent of abolitionism, voting rights for women and blacks, and treating mental illness humanely — all causes for which he left reams of letters, pamphlets, books, and speeches.
Rush served as board member and president of numerous societies and organizations that were influential and crucial in the young country's history. He survived the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s while providing free treatment to Philadelphians, and he served as counsel to Lewis and Clark before their expedition. His references would include Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson.
Yet, though the late I. Bernard Cohen candidly admitted that Rush "never achieved true greatness," two new books demonstrate the doctor was always in the ear of early America's most prominent figures. Journalist and biographer Stephen Fried and prolific historian Harlow Giles Unger both pull from similar sources, some newly accessible.
Fried's massive tome reads like a true biography, chronologically tracing every bit of detail related to what could have influenced Rush and, in turn, where he had influence. The book serves as a superb primer on the Revolutionary and early federal periods of America. Broken up into two parts, the 42 chapters are merely numbered and sometimes end for no reason seemingly other than length. Conversely, Unger's shorter work provides thematic chapters focusing on episodes in Rush's life.
What Fried describes in a few chapters, Unger may mention in a paragraph, if at all. No anecdote seems too trite for Fried. For example, he covers fruitless romantic flings in detail, whereas Unger never mentions them. Fried spreads the courting and pursuit of Rush's eventual wife, Julia, over several chapters; Unger covers their first encounter and marriage in less than a page. Fried seems to strain to place Rush near important names and events, as when he points out a clerical error on the 1790 census where "Rush's name can be seen crossed out and Hamilton's written in."
At other times, Fried's passion for detail is more than warranted. He dedicates two and a half chapters to the buildup, battle, and aftermath of Brandywine, whereas Unger spends less than a page on it. Rush was there treating casualties, and his experiences in the makeshift hospitals of both the Americans and British dramatically influenced his views. Similarly, Fried provides extensive details on Rush's encounters with mentally ill patients, starting with his earliest. At first, the uninitiated may not realize the importance of an encounter that led to no new conclusion or cure, but as the experiences add up, we see the development of an empathetic Rush who strove to improve the care and treatment of the mentally ill through revolutionary concepts such as hygiene, heat, privacy, windows, and forgoing unnecessary restraints.
Both authors demonstrate how Rush seemed equally ahead of and behind his times in medical and social issues. Among his many unique arguments for abolition, he made the case that slave owners suffered medical issues by forgoing physical activities while their slaves did the labor that used to keep their masters fit. Quite simply, owning slaves was bad for your health, not just morally wrong. This fits nicely with Rush's advocacy for black voting rights and his fund-raising for the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas — Philadelphia's first black church. Yet elsewhere, he theorized that the color and facial features of blacks was due to a form of leprosy in their family tree. Fried blasts this as "perhaps the most spectacularly wrong-headed address of Rush's career, as both a doctor and an abolitionist."
Persistently "wrong-headed" could have been Rush's motto as he continued bloodletting in the face of peers, public criticism, and even satirical newspaper articles. Thus, among some of Rush's most remarkable achievements are asterisks. Unger describes Rush's book Medical Inquires and Observations as "the broadest, most modern, and most forward-looking work on health and medical care ever seen," which "except for its obsessive advocacy of bloodletting …influenced and advanced the world of medicine and science for the next century and more." Fried more sympathetically dismisses the bloodletting with "he was thinking more and more about the primacy of pulse and blood."
Sometimes Fried's inexperience with the period can show. One captioned painting reads "The young Marquis de Lafayette and one of his servants," but the so-called servant was James Armistead — a slave who spied against Benedict Arnold and Lord Cornwallis, and who did not gain his freedom until 1787. Still, the nature of Fried's work provides a more sympathetic view of Rush as a brilliant man of positive intent, sometimes hobbled by lack of scientific discovery (e.g., no one knew yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes).
Revolution buffs may prefer Unger's succinct approach, but both works are enjoyable reads and successfully present a man who never quit, even in the face of failure or public humiliation. His last achievement was to reconcile the feud between Adams and Jefferson, a task seemingly possible only by this Philadelphian Founding Father.
Scott Manning (@warpath) has a master's and a bachelor's in history, and he serves on the board of the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association.