Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
29 Nov. 2021
Review by Steven G. Gimber, West Chester University
Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation
By Harlow Giles Unger
New York: Da Capo, 2018. Pp. xvii, 300. ISBN 978–0–306–82432–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 18th Century, American Revolutionary War Print Version

In his new book, the prolific historian Harlow Giles Unger offers readers a richly detailed biography of Benjamin Rush, an author, founding father, husband, parent, humanitarian, patriot, physician, scholar, social reformer, and a friend of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other luminaries of the Revolutionary War generation. With a relentlessly inquiring mind, Rush devoted himself to understanding the world around him and using that knowledge to improve the lives of individuals and society as a whole. Unger naturally describes him as a great figure of the Enlightenment. He thoroughly documents the Philadelphia physician's lifetime of service to the new nation. He was member of the Second Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. For a time he acted as the Continental Army's Surgeon General of the Middle Department and worked in field hospitals to improve the care of the wounded. He provided free medical care for the poor, promoted abolition, good hygiene, penal reform, public health measures, temperance, and women's rights. He advocated free and universal public schooling, helped establish colleges, taught medicine, and wrote medical texts. He worked tirelessly to combat the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1793–94. He introduced veterinary medicine and psychiatry to the United States and helped to establish Philadelphia's first free Black church as well as the American Bible Society, and much more.

All this is most engaging, but Unger sometimes fails to explore more controversial aspects of Rush's work. He tells us, for instance, that Rush was devoted to blood-letting to treat illness even though the procedure was falling out of favor. His reluctance to adopt different—less heroic—methods earned him serious criticism, especially during the Yellow Fever outbreaks. We learn that Rush wrote a treatise in defense of blood-letting, but not that he failed to explain the origins and impact of an important shift in medical treatment.

Unger interweaves glimpses of the good doctor's personal life throughout the work, but does not develop the story of his relationship with his wife and children. Rush's incredible devotion to duty—both civic and medical—surely put a significant strain on his family. Nor do we learn how the war and the loss of four children affected Rush and his family. In addition, Rush's eldest son's struggles with depression and alcohol made him a danger to himself and others, which resulted in his confinement in Pennsylvania Hospital in 1810 where he remained for the rest of his life. It was certainly Dr. Rush himself who made that difficult decision.

Although Rush was an abolitionist (and member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society), he had Black servants; in fact, he owned a child slave (William Grubber) until 1794 when he freed him. Grubber saved his life when Rush was gravely ill and expected to die. How did Rush manage to publicly promote the end of slavery yet own a fellow human being at the same time?[1]

Unger concludes with Rush's successful orchestrating of a reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which he considers the doctor's greatest achievement. But he does not describe just how healing the rift between the two men benefited the nation as a whole. Nor does he explain why Rush became an obscure character in American history. Here was a man regarded at the time of his death (1813) as on a par with Franklin and Washington and yet practically nobody knows of him today.

Unger makes some unfortunate errors, for example, referring to King Charles III when he means Charles II. At one critical point in his story, he conflates the First Continental Congress (autumn 1774) with the Second (1775–81). He is at times given to exaggeration and readily accepts John Adams's incredible "facts" regarding French diplomat Charles Genet's mission and its impact in the new republic, a subject addressed in well known works of other respected scholars.[2] Readers are treated to occasional fictional dialogues that add nothing to the story. Lastly, though the book contains copious endnotes, there are many places in the text that cry out for citations, while readers are left to wonder where the information came from.

These blemishes aside, Unger clarifies Rush's fascinating life and his many diverse and valuable contributions to the establishment of the United States. Anyone interested in either the history of the early republic or the history of medicine in the United States will certainly enjoy and learn from Harlow Unger's Dr. Benjamin Rush. It may not inspire a musical about the man, but it might help to move him from the dusty periphery of the story of America's founding to a place alongside his better known friends and associates—Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams.

[1] See further Donald J. D'Elia, "Dr. Benjamin Rush and the Negro," Journal of the History of Ideas 30.3 (1969) 413–22, and Lyman Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Princeton: Univ. Pr, 1957).

[2] E.g., David McCullough, John Adams (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001), and Stanley Elkins and Eric L. McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1993).

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