BENJAMIN RUSH: Revolutionary Gadfly by David Freeman Hawke

BENJAMIN RUSH: Revolutionary Gadfly

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Rush, the Philadelphia doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence, was an energetic, ambitious man given to devising reforms and, as the author puts it, meddling in politics. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and London, meeting Hume, Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, et al. and, Hawke thinks, solidifying his republican disposition. Back in Pennsylvania he agitated for independence, made friends with John Adams, urged Paine to write Common Sense, and entered Congress. Apart from the recurrent epidemics of the age, the practice of military medicine and propaganda for resuming debt payments occupied Rush during the war; afterwards he turned to progressive education, speculated in land, fought paper money, equivocally supported the abolition of slavery, declared that tobacco is unhealthful, and boosted the Constitution before it was even written. In 1789, for reasons the author doesn't specify, he was forced out of politics, and the book abruptly ends. This is a shame, because the medical lore is fascinating and Rush's book on mental illness, as well as his new theory of disease, appeared in tire 24 years Hawke skips. What the book makes clear is that after the Declaration Rush was mainly a gadfly to, not for, the revolution, especially in its egalitarian aspect. He made an all-out effort against the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 as leading to ""mobocracy,"" for example, and during the ratification struggle he declared himself ""happy to find that the convention hath not disgraced this Constitution with a bill of rights."" In his feuds, ambitions, and intrigues Rush turns out to be much more the exemplar of the self-seeking Yankee than a schoolroom Founding Father; the book will be read neither as expose nor as political analysis but, deservedly, for its historical flavor and circumstantial detail.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1971
Publisher: Bobbs-Merrill