Stephen Fried, Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father (New York: Crown, 2018)
When asked by a few non-historian friends why I was reading a new biography titled Rush, their assumption was that this book was about Rush Limbaugh. No, not that Rush, rather one whose first name was Benjamin, one of the lesser known founders of the new American Republic. Making Benjamin Rush better known and more appreciated was the mission of best-selling popular author Stephen Fried in preparing this volume. As he explains in his Afterword, over the years bits and pieces of Rush’s multifaceted—and sometimes controversial—life have been available in published primary and secondary sources. However, pulling all this information together, including drawing on recently-found unpublished manuscripts, had not yet produced a complete biographical study of the many adventures, accomplishments, and sometimes less than judicious actions of Dr. Rush.
Fried, a talented story teller, has given his readers a page-turning text to enjoy. In doing so, his challenge was to discuss the staggering range of political, social, and medical activities that denoted his subject’s life. Rush was born the day before Christmas in 1745 and lived until 1813. Growing up in and around Philadelphia, he trained to become a medical doctor, which included the opportunity to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland under some of the leading physicians of the day. Returning to Philadelphia in 1769, he launched what would become a largely successful medical practice but waited on getting married until January 1776 because of some unusual family notion that he should not take a bride until the age of thirty. Then he wed Julia Stockton, whose father Richard was a prominent figure in New Jersey politics—and who, like his son-in-law, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
A portion of Fried’s text focuses on the intimate family life of Benjamin and Julia, who produced thirteen children, four of whom died in their infancy and one of whom, Richard, became Attorney General of the Unites States under Presidents James Madison and James Monroe. Another son, John, led an unstable life as a physician and naval officer, finally spending most of his later years as a mental patient at the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, where his father prescribed treatments that did virtually nothing to relieve John’s immobilizing deep depression.
Rush gained a widespread reputation for his activities in trying to help patients overcome various forms of mental illness, to the point of later being heralded as the father of modern psychiatry. Like a modern medical researcher, he devoted much of his time, despite a heavy patient schedule, to seeking cures for all sorts of health problems. In his extensive medically-related writings, Rush invariably speculated about causes but came up short on solutions. Part of the problem was that he was firmly wedded to the principles of heroic medicine, in a word bloodletting as a sure cure for whatever was ailing almost every patient.
One of Fried’s best chapters focuses on Philadelphia’s deadly yellow fever epidemic of 1793 when thousands of victims died. Rush kept insisting that his bloodletting treatments represented the best remedy for healing, claiming a ninety-nine percent cure rate at one point. In reality, other methods, including cold baths and quinine and wine consumption, were more successful in helping some victims to recover. What was not known in Rush’s era, of course, was that yellow fever, a deadly virus that was not contagious, was spread by bites from female mosquitoes.
This reviewer feels that Fried should have offered a more detailed analysis of the meaning of such major health crises while devoting less space poring over Rush’s extensive post-1800 correspondence with John Adams among others. Further, Fried does not delve into Rush’s breakthrough contributions to the era’s serious health problems related to excessive alcohol consumption. Wrong on so many of his medical explanations and conclusions, Rush got this one fundamentally right. Americans of his era were heavy imbibers of strong drink, consuming two to three times the level of absolute alcohol that is the norm today. Readers should check out Rush’s “Moral and Physical Thermometer,” first presented in 1784 and the original source of what has come down to us as the disease theory of alcoholism. In the process of demonstrating the adverse health connection between heavy drinking and debilitating diseases, Rush became a founding father of America’s temperance reform and prohibition movements.1
Admittedly, all authors must decide what to emphasize in their writing, and author Fried should not be faulted for trying to bring under control the many complex strands of Rush’s very active life. The doctor was a person of enormous energy; he loved to talk, and he wrote extensively on subjects ranging from the evils of slaveholding and horrible living conditions in prisons to ending capital punishment and providing broadened educational opportunities for women. One of Rush’s most important pamphlets was An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping (1773), and he was active in working with leaders of the free black community in Philadelphia. Yet inconsistent as he occasionally was, Rush acquired a slave named Billy Grubber in 1776 and did not offer him freedom for several years.
Overall, author Fried does yeoman work in trying to explain such obvious blind spots, as also in making sense of Rush’s controversial dealings in politics and military matters. At one point Rush agreed to become surgeon general of the main Continental army under George Washington’s command. Appalled by horrible camp conditions and lack of adequate medical supplies, he accused one of his Philadelphia medical rivals, Dr. William Shippen, Jr., Director of the Army’s Hospitals, of various forms of thievery in relation to getting medical supplies to suffering troops. No doubt Shippen was involved in some shenanigans, although later acquitted in court martial proceedings, but this nasty flare up did more to sew dissension among the army’s leaders than to improve medical conditions.
As for Rush, he resigned his post but decided to place the blame for such horrible camp conditions directly on Washington. During the Conway Cabal fracas of late 1777- early 1778, Rush denounced the commander in chief as fundamentally incompetent in a letter to Patrick Henry, which got back to Washington. It was an action that led other founders to question Rush’s political judgments in the days and years ahead. Despite his attempt to suppress this controversial letter, he received no invitation to play any significant part in Washington’s presidential administration.
Even though factual errors intrude into the text, they are few and far between. More important, Stephen Fried has brought Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush back to life for modern readers. Overall, this volume represents a most worthy addition to major biographies about the founding fathers of the United States. Just under 600 pages in length, Rush is a fast paced volume and deserves a wide reading audience.
For further information on the young republic’s drinking problem and Rush’s theory about the addictive nature of alcohol, see Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America, A History (revised and expanded edition, New York: The Free Press, 1987), 34-40.
If you enjoyed James Kirby Martin’s excellent review of “Rush” by Stephen Fried, you can hear the author in person and get a signed copy of his book at the 8th Annual Conference on the American Revolution in Williamsburg, Virginia on March 22-24, 2019. Many consider this conference the premier gathering of historians and Revolutionary War enthusiasts in the country. See our ad on any page of the Journal of the American Revolution and click the link to register.