The only full biography of Benjamin Rush, an extraordinary Founding Father and America's leading physician of the Colonial era
While Benjamin Rush appears often and meaningfully in biographies about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, this legendary man is presented as little more than a historical footnote. Yet, he was a propelling force in what culminated in the Declaration of Independence, of which he was a signer.
Rush was an early agitator for independence, a member of the First Continental Congress, and one of the leading surgeons of the Continental Army during the early phase of the Revolutionary War. He was a constant and indefatigable adviser to the foremost figures of the American Revolution, notably George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
Even if he had not played a major role in our country's creation, Rush would have left his mark in history as an eminent physician and a foremost social reformer in such areas as medical teaching, treatment of the mentally ill (he is considered the Father of American Psychiatry), international prevention of yellow fever, establishment of public schools, implementation of improved education for women, and much more.
For readers of well-written biographies, Brodsky has illuminated the life of one of America's great and overlooked revolutionaries.
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About the Author
Alyn Brodsky is the author of several biographies, including The Great Mayor and Grover Cleveland, and was also the Editorial Director of two multi-volume encyclopedias, one on American history, the other on the Bible. He has lectured on history and classical music, served as a combat correspondent and feature writer for Pacific Stars&Stripes, and has been a book critic and columnist for a number of U.S. newspapers. He lives in Miami Beach, Florida where he is at work on his next book.
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Patriot and Physician
By Alyn Brodsky
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Alyn Brodsky
All rights reserved.
Ancestry and Early Years
Benjamin Rush carried on a voluminous correspondence with just about all his contemporary major figures, in which all parties ruminated at times willy-nilly on a variety of subjects that were, by turn, political, philosophical, social, critical, horticultural, medical, historical, and biographical. To Thomas Jefferson on the eve of his election as the new nation's third chief magistrate, Rush wrote (6 October 1800) of a particular ancestor, "To the sight of his sword I owe much of the spirit which animated me in 1774, and to the respect and admiration which I was early taught to cherish for his virtues and exploits I owe a large portion of my republican temper and principles. Similar circumstances I believe produced a great deal of the spirit and exertions of all those Americans who are descended from ancestors that emigrated from England between the years 1645 and 1700."
To his wife, Julia, he wrote, three days before the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence, that "the spirit of my great ancestor, who more than once dyed the sword which hangs up in our bedchamber [over the Rush bed] with the blood of the minions of arbitrary power, now moves me to declare — the spirit of my ancestor did I say? — nay, I trust the spirit of God himself moves me to declare that I will never desert the cause I am embarked in [sic], till I see the monster tyranny gnash [his] impotent teeth in the dust in the Province of Pennsylvania."
The ancestor in question was his great-great-grandfather John, the first Rush to relocate to America. Referred to by his famous descendant as "the Old Trooper," John commanded a horse troop in Cromwell's army during England's Civil War. The Lord Protector's high opinion of Captain Rush is evident in a story passed down in the family that one day, on seeing his mare come into camp riderless and assuming Rush had perished in battle, Cromwell exclaimed, "He has not left a better officer behind him." Benjamin knew nothing of "the Old Trooper"'s antecedents. It was "a sufficient gratification to me to know that he fought for liberty, and migrated into a remote wilderness in the evening of his life in order to enjoy the privilege of worshipping of God according to the dictates of his own conscience."
After the Stuarts were restored to the throne in the person of Charles I, John and his seventeen-year-old wife, Susanna — his "pretty little maiden," by whom he fathered a daughter and six sons — settled down to farming in Oxfordshire. Despite the dangers it posed for an ex-Roundhead, he refused to conform to the Church of England. In 1683, twenty years after Quaker William Penn began his "holy experiment" for settlement in America, John, age sixty- three, sold all his holdings and took his entire family, including his children's families, off to the American colony settled by Penn, of which he was the proprietor and son of the eponym.
(The British had established three types of colonies in America: proprietary, corporate, and royal provinces. Descendants of their founders, who chose the governors and councils, ruled the proprietary colonies: Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. The corporate colonies, Rhode Island and Connecticut, were founded under charters granted by English monarchs, in which corporate rights were vested in property owners who elected the royal governor and council as well as the assembly. The royal provinces of Georgia, the two Carolinas, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire were ruled by governors appointed by the king on the advice of the Board of Trade, the British administrative agency that supervised colonial affairs. In Massachusetts, however, the ruling councils were nominated by the governor and approved by the Board of Trade.)
John Rush, in Benjamin's words, "had been persecuted for his religious principles and left his native country in a fit of indignation at its then intolerant government." Indignation indeed! When a relative urged that John leave at least one of his grandchildren behind, to continue the line, he responded, "No — no, I won't. I won't leave even a hoof of my family behind me!"
Arriving in Pennsylvania, John settled his clan in Byberry Township, twelve miles up the Delaware River from Philadelphia, where a daughter and son-in-law who had come over with Penn owned five hundred arable acres. While the majority of colonizers struggled to survive in a harsh, inhospitable environment, the Rush family was at an advantage in that the local Native Americans who cleared it yearly by firing the grass and timber during hunting season had made their land arable. Thus the family prospered, albeit on a modest scale, from the outset, continuing the lives they had led back in England of country people whose lives and concerns were centered on their farms, their families, and their local community. Philadelphia's sole interest to John's family was as a market for their crops.
Though dedicated Quakers when they arrived in the New World — John would keep the faith for the remaining twenty years of his life — there was a gradual breaking away from the sect over the succeeding generations. It began with his wife, who became a Baptist in her eightieth year. This break from familial allegiance to the Religious Society of Friends, to give the Quakers their proper name, would prove to be, in a sense, fortuitous, in light of the intolerance, bordering on contempt, that Benjamin Rush cultivated for the predominantly pacifist sect during his revolutionary phase because of their opposition to warring against Great Britain. It was not that the Quakers opposed independence. Barring the rare exception, they simply opposed it by any means other than divine bestowal. Much as he accepted assiduously and unqualifiedly every aspect of the Lord, this was one thing that Rush believed could never be realized by His command. Praying for independence was one thing. Fighting for it was something else. Benjamin Rush was a firm believer in the old maxim: God helps those who help themselves.
The line of descent from John was through his eldest son, William, Benjamin's great-grandfather, who died in 1688 at the age of thirty-six, five years after the family's arrival in America. He left three children, of whom the eldest, James, Benjamin's grandfather, died in 1727 at the age of forty-eight, remembered as an industrious farmer, "uncommonly ingenious" gunsmith, and devout Presbyterian who left "a considerable property for that time," all of it debt-free. James bequeathed both the farm and the gunsmith business to John, a convert to the Episcopal Church, remembered by his son as "a man of meek and peaceable spirit," "agreeable and engaging in person and manners," and "exemplary in his life."
Benjamin's mother was Susanna Hall Harvey, whose lineage can be graced almost as far back as the Rushes. Her family migrated from England in 1685. Hall was the family name. Joseph Harvey was the name of Susanna's first husband. According to Benjamin, who doubtless got the story from Susanna, the marriage was "terminated [by Joseph's death] in three or four years by the extravagance and intemperance [for which read alcoholism] of her young husband." Susanna was left with a young daughter, which she brought to her marriage to John Rush.
The marriage was by all accounts a happy one. According to Benjamin, who adored his mother, "She was a woman of a very extraordinary mind. It was full of energy. She had been well educated at a boarding School in Philadelphia, and was well acquainted with the common branches of female education. As a mother she had no superior in kindness, generosity, and attention to the morals and religious principles of her children." In the family's stone house, which, greatly improved upon, stands to this day (though not owned by any Rush descendants), Susanna bore John seven children, of whom Benjamin, the fourth, as he later described it to John Adams, "made my first unwelcome noise in the world" on Christmas Eve, 1745. His birthday became 4 January 1746, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced into the colonies six years later.
Consistent with the penchant of the Old Trooper's descendants for moving over time from one sect of Protestantism to another until, it would seem, they had touched all bases, young Benjamin was baptized in the Church of England. But this would not remain a constant; during his lifetime Benjamin, in whose adult life and thinking religion would play a central role, himself moved through a number of the Protestant factions like a migratory animal in quest of the most gratifying habitat.
Four of Susanna and John's children survived to maturity; the others died in infancy. That Benjamin was one of the survivors is somewhat remarkable, since the year of his birth coincided with a particularly devastating epidemic of a disease known as angina maligna, probably modern diphtheria, which permeated the Pennsylvania countryside with, in the words of one chronicler of the times, "mortal rage. It swept all before it, baffling every attempt to stop its progress. Villages were almost depopulated, and numerous parents were left to bewail the loss of their tender offspring." Two years later, John, having apparently lost interest in farming and tiring of the rural way of life, sold his house and moved his immediate family to Philadelphia where he became a full-time gunsmith.
* * *
From its founding at the junction of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers where William Penn laid out a municipality of giant squares, to be subdivided into generous lots embraced with sufficient light and landscaping to prevent the development of grimy tenement dwellings, Philadelphia had by the time of Benjamin Rush's childhood evolved into the largest, most commercial city in the American colonies. Its approximately fifteen thousand inhabitants, chiefly Quaker and German, though immigrants of all religious persuasion were welcome, enjoyed physical, social, and cultural advantages equaled perhaps by Boston but certainly no other colonial city. This was owing in large measure to the man it would not be too wide of the mark to look upon, as did his fellow citizens, as the city's patron saint — Benjamin Franklin. It was this Boston-born Renaissance man of colonial times, eldest by a generation of the foremost Founding Fathers who, among other accomplishments, organized a street-cleaning system, a firefighting company, and a night watch; inspired a circulating library, a philosophical society, and a daily postal delivery service; invented the smokeless stove; and both regaled and edified the people with his inspired Poor Richard's Almanac. And books have been written devoted to his role in winning recognition at Europe's major royal courts for the American Revolution and subsequently the independent nation to which that war gave birth.
There was, though, the reverse side of the coin. Penn's vision of the City of Brotherly Love as "a green country town" was a metropolis — at least, what for the times could be so called — where hogs ran wild in the streets. A stream called the Dock Creek all but bisected the city like the rotting corpse of some gargantuan reticulated snake and emitted a horrific stench due to the habit of the stables and tanneries flanking it to use it as an open sewer. Filth accumulated in the streets until dispersed by the next rainfall. Flies, mosquitoes, bedbugs, and roaches were an especial source of discomfort, particularly in the summers. Though dreaded, they were accepted as an annual rite to be somehow gotten through, and somehow were. The heat in this city was excessive, since the brick houses and street pavements reflected the sun's rays. Awnings of painted cloth or duck were commonly used over shop doors and windows; at sunset, buckets of water were flung upon the pavements to cool them down. Water came from pumps in the backyards of dwellings; there were also public pumps at almost every fifty paces. A great number of the houses had balconies where in warm weather the men would sit in cool clothing and smoke their pipes.
To country-oriented mothers like Susanna Rush, it was a fact of life to be borne with forbearance and prayers to the Almighty for better times to come that young Benjamin and his contemporaries while roaming the streets in the manner of children down through history beheld adult brawls in which "little bastard" and "shitten elf" were the epithets of choice, and, in extremis, were resolved with the brandishing of knives and muskets. Still, the baser element never succeeded in diminishing Philadelphia's importance.
Its merchant aristocracy, professional class, and highborn elite could disregard the stink of Dock Creek, the hogs, the little bastards, and the shitten elves as they went about their business — the wealthier either in coaches or sedan chairs — and sought the comfort and salubrious ambience of their handsome, well-appointed residences or the satisfying social setting of their favorite taverns. It was in the taverns that one and all, regardless of socioeconomic status, found their entertainment. And here the word is used advisedly. Entertainment consisted of little more than general conversation, political gossip, and, perhaps, a bland joke or two, discreetly whispered. This was, after all, a city of Quakers, to whom the concept of frivolity was intolerable.
As the metropolitan center for the towns and hamlets situated within an approximately fifteen-mile radius, the city boasted, in addition to its many inns and taverns, its many churches, and its magnificent new State House on Chestnut Street where the Philadelphia Assembly met, a vast marketplace with countless sheds along a large portion of High (Market) Street and, to accommodate the city's southern section, one of comparable size on South Second Street at Cedar (South). To both came farmers from the surrounding counties to sell their produce, buy supplies, and hear the latest news of the day. For two shillings, they could amuse themselves and their children by going to see the large live lion at James Rorke's house on Water Street.
To the wharves on the Delaware, the city's outlet to the Atlantic, there came a steady stream of ships to on-load American produce for export and off-load every importable product not manufactured but in demand by the colonists — including slaves and indentured servants. These either found their place in Philadelphia's social structure or simply disappeared. John Howell, a tanner, advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette (24 December 1745) for his servant, James Gardner, age about thirty, who had run off: "He is of pretty fresh complexion, middle stature, and round and full-bodied; He had on and with him, a dark homespun coat, with flat metal buttons, a half worn hat, a worsted cap. A light coloured cloth jacket, with pewter buttons, covered with leather, new black and white stockings, good shoes, two homespun shirts, and a pair of short trousers."
Benjamin's father prospered as a gunsmith in Philadelphia. Besides the house the family lived in, he owned two others in the city and a tract of land in suburban Warminster. His intense religiosity and honorableness as a businessman and private citizen was such that customers and neighbors alike measured a man's integrity with the catchphrase "He was as honest as John Rush." John's prosperity did not long survive the family's relocation to Philadelphia. Less than four years later he died, on 26 July 1751, at the age of thirty-nine. Though the cause has not come down to us — typhus or tuberculosis would be as good a guess as any, since no record survives of any accident — his last words, repeated mantra-like in his last hours, are said to have been "Lord! Lord! Lord!"
Susanna, at thirty-four, was now the sole support of the daughter by her first marriage, then about sixteen, James, twelve, Rachel, ten, Rebecca, seven, Benjamin, five and a half, Jacob, four, and the infant John, who died soon after his father. James was sent off to sea on the advice of physicians as an antidote to "a nervous disease" by which he had been "much afflicted"; he would die in his twenty-first year of yellow fever off the island of Jamaica. Jacob would go on to become one of the new nation's leading jurists. Rachel and Rebecca "married with good prospects and settled in Philadelphia." Both married twice. Rachel, to whom Benjamin was closest, died during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. Rebecca, who had moved with her second husband to Harrisburg, died five years later. Of Benjamin's half sister, it is known that she married and produced progeny, but no history of that branch of the family survived.
Excerpted from Benjamin Rush by Alyn Brodsky. Copyright © 2004 Alyn Brodsky. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One: 1745–1776,
1. Ancestry and Early Years,
4. London and Paris,
5. Philadelphia Physician,
6. Marriage and Politics,
8. Founding Father,
Part Two: 1776–1813,
9. Dr. Rush Goes to War,
10. Physician General in Washington's Army,
11. Dr. Rush's Private War,
12. Dr. Rush Quits the Army,
14. Civilian Physician Redivivus,
17. Back in the Political Arena,
18. Retirement from Politics,
19. "Dr. Vampire",
20. The Last Years,