'Rush': The Other Founding Father From Philadelphia Named Benjamin Stephen Fried's biography argues that Benjamin Rush — a pioneering physician, writer and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence — belongs on the historical tier of Benjamin Franklin.
NPR logo

'Rush': The Other Founding Father From Philadelphia Named Benjamin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/643764214/644085245" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Rush': The Other Founding Father From Philadelphia Named Benjamin

'Rush': The Other Founding Father From Philadelphia Named Benjamin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/643764214/644085245" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And now let's go to Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States, and retrace the steps of a lesser-known but fascinating Founding Father, a Benjamin who does not have his face on the $100 bill. His name is Benjamin Rush. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a doctor who became known as the American Hippocrates and a pioneer in the field of mental health. Our Philadelphia tour guide is Stephen Fried, author of the new biography "Rush: Revolution, Madness And The Visionary Doctor Who Became A Founding Father." And we start at the country's first hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, where Dr. Rush worked for many years.

STEPHEN FRIED: Rush was a blacksmith's son. He did not have a lot of money. So he was the young star of that era and trying to make a living as a doctor, which was hard. The good thing about him trying to make a living as a doctor is he had to treat poor patients. He had to treat patients of all races. So it's not surprising that he became the Founding Father most interested in diversity issues because he was astonished at racial prejudice. He was astonished at religious prejudice. And so he really paid attention to these things pretty early on.

BLOCK: When you say he's a pioneer or that he revolutionized how we think about mental health, describe how the mentally ill would have been treated in this hospital...

FRIED: Sure.

BLOCK: ...In Pennsylvania Hospital back then.

FRIED: Since Pennsylvania was - Pennsylvania Hospital was the first hospital - was also one of the first places that people with mental illness were treated away from their homes. And sadly, they had no idea what how to treat people. They warehoused them. They locked them. They chained them to the floor. They slept on straw. It was believed then that people with mental illness were impervious to cold or heat. And actually, after the Revolution, we can see him trying to get funding for better care, trying to get people to understand that both mental illness and addiction - which, at that time, was mostly alcoholism - were medical problems and try to de-stigmatize them and try to get people in here for treatment. I would argue the history of modern mental health care starts here in this building with Rush.

BLOCK: Yeah. The way you describe it in your book, at the time, the mentally ill were seen as damned, not diseased.

FRIED: I think the people saw this as demonic possession. Or they saw people just being weak of will. And if they would just buck up, which we still hear today, they wouldn't drink so much. They wouldn't be so depressed. They wouldn't be so manic.


BLOCK: OK. Stephen Fried, we have left Pennsylvania Hospital. We are now sitting behind Independence Hall, the room where it happened because, along with his active medical career, Benjamin Rush was deeply, deeply embroiled in the political conversations of his time.

FRIED: Yes. Actually, as a young doctor, he gave inoculations here. And then several years after that, he was in the Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence.

BLOCK: What did he write about what that moment meant, to be signing that declaration declaring independence from England?

FRIED: Rush had actually just joined the Continental Congress when he got the chance to sign the declaration. He considered it to be a very solemn moment, a very scary moment. They were very cognizant - at least, he was - that they were basically signing something that was treasonous. And they could be taking their life in their hands.

BLOCK: And what were his beliefs? What were his core beliefs that led him to be one of these, ultimately, Founding Fathers?

FRIED: Rush really believed in equality. And so I think that that informed his decision to be in favor of independence. He was on line with independence very early on, even though this was dangerous for his career here in Philadelphia. Philadelphia had the largest percentage of loyalists.

BLOCK: One thing we should mention here is that even though Benjamin Rush was an ardent abolitionist, he owned a slave named William Grubber. It seems like hypocrisy.

FRIED: First of all, it was interesting to try to do the research to nail down when he owned a slave. We don't know why he bought a slave. It was in the later years of the war. And he had a slave for a number of years. And he freed him. And since he didn't write about it except to write about his freedom - and when William Grubber died, Rush had him treated at Pennsylvania Hospital and paid for his funeral. He wrote about their relationship a little bit. So not every story is sort of a straight-through story. So it's not my place to apologize for anything he did but just to show this was a very complicated man who made an enormous contribution to America.

BLOCK: Stephen Fried, we are leaving Independence Hall. We have one more stop, a final stop on our Benjamin Rush tour of Philadelphia. Where are we going?

FRIED: We're heading to Christ Church burial ground, which is the final resting place of both of our Benjamins, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. It's three blocks.

BLOCK: Short blocks or long blocks?

FRIED: Medium blocks.


FRIED: This is Rush's sarcophagus here.

BLOCK: Raised marble sarcophagus, well-worn...

FRIED: Well-worn - yes.

BLOCK: Some of the letters are wearing away underneath a towering oak tree. What do you think about when you come?

FRIED: I've come here often. And I'm here in my head a lot often when I'm not here. This is a sarcophagus of a very important man. I mean, the funeral of Benjamin Rush is something that almost every civic group sent people to. It was described in the newspapers as being second only to Washington's burial and Franklin's burial. Franklin's is the one that's probably visited the most. But I think the Rush grave is the one that really - it provides the most thought. I mean, I do think that you can come here and think about mental health advocacy and advocacy for addiction. You can come here and talk about public education because Rush is really one of the first people to talk about that. You can talk about religious freedom. And it's also - it's beautiful. And even on a 95-degree day, it's cool and breezy. And the birds are chirping.

BLOCK: In the far corner of the cemetery, we walked by the grave of Benjamin Franklin, the other Benjamin.

FRIED: Yeah.

BLOCK: And I'm struck. In your book, you quote from a letter that John Adams wrote after Benjamin Rush died to his son, to Richard Rush. And this is what he said. Dr. Rush was a greater and better man than Dr. Franklin. Yet Rush was always persecuted and Franklin always adored. Rush has done infinitely more good to America than Franklin.

FRIED: Well, I would, of course, agree with John Adams. But this isn't a score card here. What's interesting is that if Benjamin Rush was here, he would say, you're going to question whether Benjamin Franklin is important? Rush was Franklin's protege. He adored Franklin. In Franklin's later years, Rush made sure that people paid attention to Franklin when he seemed too old and sick. But Franklin died in 1790. And Rush very much, I think, wanted to be the next Benjamin and be that person who carried on the traditions of Franklin into the next century. And I think he did as a scientist, as a teacher, as a writer. And I think Franklin would admit that.

BLOCK: Stephen Fried, thanks for taking us on a Benjamin Rush tour of Philadelphia - appreciate it.

FRIED: Thanks so much for coming.

BLOCK: Stephen Fried's biography of Benjamin Rush is titled "Rush: Revolution, Madness And The Visionary Doctor Who Became A Founding Father."


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.