Rush, the Politician

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An Inquiry in the Natural History of Medicine among the Indians

Title page: An Oration Delivered February 4, 1774 before the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia. Containing, An Enquiry into the Natural History of Medicine among the Indians in North-America...

Library, College of Physicians of Philadelphia

A characteristic belief in the equality of all men (and, more so than almost all Revolutionary leaders, women) led Rush to a faith in the future of a united America more quickly than many of his contemporaries. Indeed, from his return from Europe he was convinced of the corruption of Parliament and the king's advisors. Rush was pro-independence and during and immediately after the War tended to be a Federalist, favoring a strong Constitution. At the time of the First Continental Congress, Rush was peripheral to it but well-informed, becoming friends with, among others, John and Samuel Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During the Second Continental Congress of 1775, though not yet a member, Rush urged the appointment of Washington as Commander of the Army. The doctor also accepted the position of physician-surgeon of the fleet of galleys built to protect Philadelphia from a British invasion up the Delaware River. During this year he also greatly aided the patriots' cause by helping Thomas Paine get Common Sense printed; it was in fact Rush who suggested the title.

The year 1776 was Rush's glory year as a politician. Although his exact role is somewhat obscure, Rush was an important figure in pushing Pennsylvania into supporting independence. The Pennsylvania Assembly, made up largely of Reconciliationists, attempted to thwart the so-called Independents. Rush was a member of a committee of Independents that had tried and failed to wrest control of the Assembly from the Reconciliationists. Delegated from the committee to a Provincial Conference to establish a constitution for Pennsylvania, Rush helped draw up plans for a convention that would develop one. At the same time the Continental Congress was voting in favor of the Declaration of Independence. Pennsylvania's constitutional Conference, usurping the power of the Assembly, met in mid-July, and Rush, resigning as fleet-surgeon, was elected to the new Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress. Rush, who was not in Congress when independence was being debated, nevertheless by happenstance became a signatory of the Declaration, which was signed on about August 1.

Over the next few months, Rush remained heavily involved in Revolutionary events. He saw action during the fighting around Trenton. About a week after the famous surprise attack, Rush attended to the wounded following a skirmish at Trenton and went to Princeton immediately after the battle there, where he cared for, among others, General Hugh Mercer. The first-hand experience of battlefield medicine gave Rush additional insight into the inadequacies of army medical care (he was already involved in army medical organization through his work in Congress). A few months after his departure from Congress, Rush was appointed physician general for the mid-Atlantic states. Just before the appointment Rush had written an essay on the health of soldiers, a piece containing many sound points about military hygiene. "The mortality from sickness in camps is not necessarily connected with a soldier's life," Rush wrote.1 Filth-caused disease killed more soldiers than battle. Officers should keep their men well-fed, clean and dry. Advice in the essay would be given to Meriwether Lewis in 1803.

The press of events found Rush with the army again, this time at the Battle of Brandywine. A flag of truce to treat wounded allowed Rush to observe conditions in the British army, which intensified his anger about the conditions in the American army, as Washington's defeat had intensified Rush's lack of confidence in the American general. He demanded a congressional inquiry into director general William Shippen's handling of the medical department, which Rush received, but in the event Shippen retained his position and Rush resigned. He had not helped his case by writing an indiscreet letter to Patrick Henry, disparaging Washington's leadership. Unfortunately, Rush had also praised members of the Conway Cabal who attempted to replace Washington with Thomas Conway as Commander in Chief. (No direct evidence links Rush to the Cabal, and in later years Rush again came to admire Washington.) Rush's zeal and commitment to the cause, his outspokenness and lack of discretion, and his personal animosity towards Shippen, were contributing factors in Rush's resignation from the medical department and the damage to his reputation caused by the controversies.

While he remained closely in touch with events, Rush lessened his direct involvement after 1777. He testified at the court-martial of nemesis William Shippen, locked in a bitter dispute with John Morgan (Shippen was acquitted). Another political issue was the Pennsylvania state constitution. At first a supporter, Rush became an ardent foe of its unicameral legislature and weak executive. Rush worked on its modification until a new state constitution was promulgated in 1789. Rush, however, while ever the reformer and writer, was mainly occupied with his practice, his teaching, and his family. Julia Stockton had become Mrs. Rush in January of 1776; their first child was born the following year.


1. Quoted in Hawke, 193. The title of the essay was "To the Officers in the Army of the United American States: Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers," printed in the Pennsylvania Packet, 22 April 1777.

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