The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush


Had Rush remained long enough in his job to enforce his regulations, the health of Washington’s hard-pressed army (which was driven from Philadelphia in September and stumbled on to encamp at Valley Forge that winter) would certainly have improved. But Rush, almost from the start, flung himself headlong into battle against the army’s medical system. He found the various hospitals in which he was supposed to care for his military patients to be in a chaotic state. They were overcrowded and undersupplied, and the unlucky troops brought into them died by the thousands, of infection and neglect. Rush demanded to know why clean bedding, wine, sugar, medicines, vegetables, and other necessities were lacking, and why ambulatory patients were allowed to wander in and out unguarded, ignoring doctors’ orders and bringing rum, improper foods, and outside infections into the wards. He wrote stormy letters to friends in Congress and to Washington, raging at the medical administration of the army as “a mass of corruption and tyranny.”


In his impatience Rush looked about for villains and found one in the director general of the army’s medical services, Dr. William Shippen. By December of 1777 Rush was accusing Shippen of willful neglect, incompetence, and the outright crime of appropriating army stores for himself and selling them. In Shippen he had chosen an almost invulnerable target, however. Shippen was a well-known and well-connected Philadelphia physician who could and did dismiss the attacks on him as a case of personal jealousy. He could also point out—with reason—that desperate shortages of supplies existed everywhere in the army. And Rush, by publicly campaigning for his replacement, gave Shippen the status of a victim and offended the necessary pattern of military discipline.

But Rush, always full of the “indiscreet zeal for truth,” persisted in frontal assault. He had no skill in manipulation, he overestimated the support he would get in Congress, and worst of all, when he sensed that Washington was unwilling or unable to take his advice immediately, he wrote an angry letter, which he cautiously left unsigned, to Patrick Henry, clearly indicating that a change in top command was necessary to save the Revolution. Henry, most indiscreetly, showed the letter to Washington, who recognized the handwriting, and Rush’s situation rapidly became hopeless. The man who was later called “Dr. Froth” by an anonymous correspondent had unsuccessfully tried to mix medicine and politics. The Rush-Shippen feud was turned over to a select investigating committee of Congress, which quietly informed Rush that it saw things Shippen’s way and that if the medical service was not big enough for the two men, it was Rush, the junior, who would have to go. On January 30, 1778, Rush resigned, having failed to learn the lesson contained in a letter from his friend John Adams, who had begged him to stay on and fight abuses from the inside: “Patience! Patience! Patience! The first, the last, and the middle virtues of a politician.”

Exiled to idleness in New Jersey while the British occupied Philadelphia, Rush went through a period of depression and, for one last time, thought of giving up medicine for the law. But the reopening of the city made it possible for him to resume his practice, and in the 1780’s he entered a new period of intellectual and political activity that would have exhausted several lesser men. Underlying Rush’s whirlwind of involvement in public affairs was a zestful nationalism that flowered throughout the young United States as the war ended in victory. As he wrote in 1786: “The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms. …”

To assist in that cultivation of republican soil Rush undertook a diversified list of activities. He was one of the major founders of a new college in the “back country,” at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, named after John Dickinson, whose Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies was one of the basic pamphlets that had helped promote the Revolution. He also assisted in the founding of a Germanlanguage academy, Franklin College (later Franklin and Marshall), in Lancaster, amid the Pennsylvania Dutch. He ardently supported the Constitution and served in the crucial Pennsylvania ratifying convention, which won a hard-fought victory for the nationalists. And he wrote essay after essay designed to combat “vulgar errors or popular prejudices.” He advocated a new penal code aimed at rehabilitation of the criminal; education for “females” that would expose them to geography, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry, history, and poetry; a statewide plan for public schools, capped by a national university. He blazed away anew at tobacco, slavery, and strong waters. And he dabbled in such sidelines as expunging from the American language such aristocratic misfits as Latinisms, borrowings from French, and many-syllabled English words based on an educational overdose of the classics.