Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania: Physician, United States Mint Treasurer, Continental Congress Member, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
John Adams wrote from Philadelphia, June of 1776: “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt a heart of stone. The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”
George Washington wrote his concerns regarding inoculating his troops: “Should we inoculate generally, the enemy, knowing it, will certainly take advantage of our situation.”
The threat of smallpox did not lessen until widespread inoculations were called for by Dr. Benjamin Rush, born January 4, 1745. Dr. Benjamin Rush was a surgeon general of the middle department of the Continental Army, tending to wounded soldiers during the Battle of Princeton, including General Hugh Mercer. Dr. Rush personally inoculated Virginia Governor Patrick Henry against smallpox, as well as Pennsylvania troops, resulting in their low rate of illness.
Skepticism of vaccines haunted the British in other colonies. A century later, the British faced an accusation in India, as recorded in The Indian Medical Gazette, “Dr. K. C. Bose on Small-pox in Calcutta” (March 1890, 82): “The affection for their children has driven them to regard vaccination as an operation intended by government to thin the number of its poor subjects.”
Trinidad and the West Indies continued this skepticism, as William Tebb’s The Recrudescence of Leprosy and Its Causation: A Popular Treatise (1893) recounted Dr. Bakewell’s testimony before the Select Vaccination Parliamentary Committee in 1871: “There is a very strong opinion prevalent in Trinidad, and in the West Indies generally, that leprosy has been introduced into the system by vaccination.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush had studied medicine in Philadelphia, then in Europe under the world’s foremost physicians, and then returned to Philadelphia in 1769. Though his practices were archaic by today’s standards, he is considered by some as the “Father of American Medicine” for his work on staff at the Pennsylvania Hospital, where he opened the first free medical clinic.
He was among the first to recognize alcoholism as a disease and began to promote temperance. Dr. Rush wrote the first textbook on mental illness and psychiatry, recommending treatment with kindness, earning him the title “Father of American Psychiatry.”
He was a member of the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. His wife was Julia, was the daughter of Richard Stockton, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Paine consulted with Dr. Benjamin Rush when writing his stirring pamphlet Common Sense. Rush helped write Pennsylvania’s Constitution and was as a member of the Pennsylvania State Convention which ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787. He was Treasurer of the U.S. Mint. Rush helped found Dickinson College to train physicians, and the Philadelphia Dispensary. A statue of Dr. Benjamin Rush stands on the campus of Dickinson College.
During the dread summer of 1793, Dr. Rush stayed in Philadelphia battling the disease of Yellow Fever which killed thousands. He was the first to recognize that yellow fever was not contagious, leading to the later discovery that it was spread by mosquito bites.
Dr. Benjamin Rush supported ending slavery prior to the Revolution, forming a Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He founded a Sunday School Union and the Philadelphia Bible Society.
Perhaps Dr. Benjamin Rush’s most beloved contribution to American history was in 1812 encouraging John Adams to write to Thomas Jefferson, breaking the silence which had existed between them for years due to earlier political differences.
A proponent of public education for young women as well as men, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote his Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, 1786:
“I proceed … to inquire what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all of the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of the youth; and here I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of 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. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament … Its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in A Plan for Free Schools, 1787:
“Let the children … be carefully instructed in the principles and obligations of the Christian religion. This is the most essential part of education.”
Rush wrote to Jeremy Belknap, July 13, 1789: “The great enemy of the salvation of man, in my opinion, never invented a more effectual means of extirpating (removing) Christianity from the world than by persuading mankind that it was improper to read the Bible at schools.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in an essay, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book,” included in his 1798 work, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical:
“The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life … It should be read in our schools in preference to all other books from its containing the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public temporal happiness.”
Rush wrote in Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 1798:
“I know there is an objection among many people to teaching children doctrines of any kind, because they are liable to be controverted. But let us not be wiser than our Maker. If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into all the world would have been unnecessary. The perfect morality of the Gospel rests upon the doctrine which, though often controverted has never been refuted: I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.”
“Vicarious” is defined in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as: “suffered by one person as a substitute for another or to the benefit or advantage of another: substitutionary.”
Dr. Rush stated: “Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”
He wrote his Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, 1786: “A Christian cannot fail of being a republican … for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy … A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teaches him that no man ‘liveth to himself.’ And lastly a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teaches him in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush explained in Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical, 1798: “Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy … In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them.
… We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this Divine book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.”
On July 9, 1788, in a letter to Elias Boudinot regarding a parade in Philadelphia, Dr. Benjamin Rush stated: “The Rabbi of the Jews locked arms of two ministers of the Gospel was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote:
“I have been alternately called an Aristocrat and a Democrat. I am neither. I am a Christocrat. I believe all power … will always fail of producing order and happiness in the hands of man. HE alone who created and redeemed man is qualified to govern him.”
Rush died in Philadelphia on April 19, 1813, and was buried in the yard of Christ’s Church.
Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“Another of our friends of seventy-six is gone, my dear Sir, another of the co-signers of the Independence of our country …
… A better man than Rush could not have left us, more benevolent, more learned, of finer genius, or more honest. I know of no Character living or dead who has done more real good in America.”
Memorials to Dr. Benjamin Rush stand on Navy Hill in Washington, D.C., and near the Harvard Square Library.
During his final illness, he wrote to his wife:
“My excellent wife, I must leave you, but God will take care of you.
By the mystery of Thy holy incarnation;
by Thy holy nativity;
by Thy baptism, fasting, and temptation;
by Thine agony and bloody sweat;
by Thy cross and passion;
by Thy precious death and burial;
by Thy glorious resurrection and ascension, and
by the coming of the Holy Ghost, blessed Jesus, wash away all my impurities, and receive me into Thy everlasting kingdom.”
Excerpt reprinted with permission from: The American Minute with Bill Federer, “‘Smallpox Is Ten Times More Terrible!’– Diseases During the Revolution, Dr. Benjamin Rush” https://americanminute.com/blogs/todays-american-minute/smallpox-is-ten-times-more-terrible-diseases-during-the-revolution-dr-benjamin-rush-american-minute-with-bill-federer
William J. Federer is a nationally known speaker and best-selling author of many books including “America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations” which has sold over a half-million copies. He is president of Amerisearch.net, a publishing company dedicated to researching America’s Christian heritage. Bill’s American Minute radio feature is broadcast daily across America and via Internet. His Faith in History television program airs on the TCT Network on stations across America and via DIRECTV. A former U.S. Congressional Candidate, Bill has appeared on CSPAN, FOXNews, MSNBC, ABC, CBN, FamilyNet, The Eric Metaxas Show, Prager U, Starnes Country on FOX Nation, Coral Ridge Hour, 700 Club, and Focus on the Family. He has been quoted or referenced in USA Today, Human Events, New York Times, Washington Times, Washington Post, to name a few, among numerous other television shows and documentaries, publications, and radio programs.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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