A welcome biography of a Founding Father who, for many reasons, has been eclipsed by other figures of the Revolution.
Benjamin Rush (1745-1843) is renowned in the annals of American medicine as a pioneer of medical education and the treatment of the mentally ill. Yet, writes Fried (Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West, 2010, etc.), Rush came to medicine somewhat late, having rejected a career in the clergy and then the law, and he settled in to a kind of general practice that was notable for lifestyle advice: “Every full meal,” he warned, “is a stimulous to the whole system, and brings on a temporary fever.” Well ahead of contemporaries and later generations of professionals, he advocated a nice round of golf, a game that he claimed would allow its player to “live ten years the longer.” Falling into the orbit of freethinkers such as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the latter of whom thought him “too much of a talker to be a deep thinker,” Rush became a prominent revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence, then surgeon general of the Continental Army. In the last post, he advocated for better conditions for the soldiers, a losing argument in “an army that still didn’t have enough uniforms, shoes, or proper weapons.” Fried’s account of Rush’s postwar career is full of oddments: A slaveholder, Rush eventually became a vocal abolitionist and supporter of African-American causes; an early advocate of mental health treatments, some of which we would regard as quackery today, he had some odd notions—e.g., the thought that booksellers, moving from one book and one subject to another so rapidly, “have sometimes become deranged from this cause.” In all, Fried delivers a complete portrait of a complex man too little known outside Philadelphia.
A careful account of a man who excited attention and controversy in his day but then fell into the shadows. Fried does well to restore him to history.