October 11, 2018


Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $28.

     Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, and given enough time, Harlow Giles Unger may end up writing biographies of all of them. That would be a considerable service to those interested in the early years of the United States, although that group seems to be getting smaller as more and more people turn their backs on history in a search for whatever the next big thing may be in the future.

     While interest does remain in the Founding Fathers, though, Unger’s meticulous research about them is of considerable value, even when his writing is not at its best, as it is not in Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush is well-known in modern medical circles and has been called “the father of American psychiatry” by the American Psychiatric Association – a considerable overstatement, really, but one that indicates the importance of Rush’s ongoing interest in the way mind and body interact and relate to each other in terms of both wellness and disease. Rush is also known in various sociopolitical groups for his contributions to prison reform, temperance and other causes, and for having several of his 13 children who followed in his wake in their own attempts to better the lives of those Americans who were often forgotten in grand political schemes and the excitement of establishing and defending a new nation: women, slaves, indentured laborers, prisoners, and the poor.

     But although it would be possible to argue that Rush was more “modern” in his embrace of the under-represented and often uncared-for elements of American society than were many other Founding Fathers, this is not what Unger does. Instead, he takes readers rather matter-of-factly through Rush’s life and accomplishments, showing his importance in fields as varied as geriatrics and veterinary medicine. The scope of Rush’s accomplishments in some areas comes through vividly: “Until Benjamin Rush put vast reforms in place,” Unger writes at one point, “the insane sat chained and manacled in dark cellars, wallowing in their own filth, subject to whipping by sadistic guards.” Rush insisted on better food and housing for the mentally ill, believing that their illnesses were illnesses, not some form of demonic possession or willful antisocial behavior. He had a similar attitude toward prisoners, believing in trying to rehabilitate them and teach them good work habits so they could eventually become contributing members of society.

     But as modern-sounding as some of Rush’s ideas may have been, others were, understandably, mired in the beliefs and the science of his time (1746-1813). For instance, he found an association between yellow fever and stagnant water – but did not realize that the disease vector was water-breeding mosquitoes. He insisted on cleanliness in medical practice and good hygiene and sanitation in everyday life, at a time when none of these was taken for granted – but he firmly believed in the longstanding practices of bleeding and purging to cure a variety of diseases. So he was in some ways a man ahead of his times and in some ways a man of his times; and saying so in a book is perfectly acceptable.

     What Unger tends to minimize, though, is Rush’s life as politician and statesman – the area most likely to draw readers to a biography that is, after all, not intended to be read primarily by the medical profession. Rush’s thinking, for example, was instrumental in the development of Thomas Paine’s highly influential Common Sense, but little is made of that fact or, indeed, of the importance and wide impact of Paine’s pamphlet. Rush’s political leadership in Pennsylvania is discussed but given rather short shrift, and some of his genuine political accomplishments – such as getting former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to re-engage with each other after years of bitter enmity – come across as less significant than they were in the independent nation’s early years, even though the rapprochement of Adams and Jefferson is an important element justifying Unger’s book’s subtitle about healing a wounded nation.

     As usual in Unger’s books, the research is careful and based to the extent possible on primary sources. And there are copious notes at the end, along with no fewer than four appendices. Even here, though, there is a sense of something not balanced quite as elegantly as it could be: the first three appendices list many of Rush’s writings and medical observations, but the fourth appendix – a “confidential document President Jefferson shared with Benjamin Rush, M.D.” – is the really interesting one. It offers Jefferson’s comparison of the doctrines of Jesus with those of others, and despite its brevity provides considerable insight into Jefferson’s views of Jews, Greek philosophers and others. As a document shedding light on the Deism-flavored Christianity of the Founding Fathers, it is far too interesting to be relegated to the role of a near-throaway appendix.

     Actually, Rush himself is far too interesting and, arguably, far too significant to be left in the relative obscurity that he now occupies. Unger’s book is not sufficiently engaging to turn Rush into a truly prominent Founding Father, but it has enough elements of interest to encourage readers seeking a better-rounded view of American history to give him more than a passing thought.

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