Benjamin Rush, Race, Slavery, and Abolitionism

The college’s founder, Benjamin Rush, was acutely interested in the issues of slavery, abolitionism, and racial difference. His deep-seated faith in the power of rationality to dispel injustice and undeserved privilege led him to reject notions that others used to support inequality. For Rush, human beings were naturally disposed toward freedom, and he regarded African Americans as capable of shouldering the responsibilities of freedom. “I need say hardly anything in favor of the Intellects of the Negroes, or of their capacities for virtue and happiness,” he wrote, “although they have been supposed by some to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe. The accounts which travelers give of their ingenuity, humanity and strong attachments to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans.” For Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, all men were created equal, including those enslaved.

For Rush, slavery was not simply unjust; it was a transgression against natural law and a blight against God—a serious charge for the devout Presbyterian Christian. He believed that the new nation could not continue to maintain such a scourge without a reckoning. “Remember that national crimes require national punishments,” he wrote about slavery, “and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.”

Rush, therefore, was a committed and prominent abolitionist. In 1787, he joined the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, not only as a powerful advocate but also as an author of its new constitution and as secretary and later president. He maintained close contacts with Philadelphia’s African American community, including helping found the city’s first black church.

But this fairly straightforward narrative of Rush’s views on African Americans, slavery and abolitionism is complicated by other facts. Rush bought a child slave, William Grubber, whom he owned until he freed him for compensation in 1794. The question remains open about Rush’s relationship with Grubber. Did he feel conflicted about voicing strident views against slavery while owning another human being? Rush himself offers little comment in his writings.

Rush also mixed his views on race with his interests in physical science and his firm religious beliefs. Eager to prove that all human beings “descended from one pair,” Adam and Eve, he came to think that the disease of leprosy caused the blackness in skin color. A cure, therefore, would change Africans’ skin color “back” to white, thereby allowing Rush to support his Christian creationism, to counter those who argued that blacks were naturally disposed to enslavement, and to support their future assimilation as full citizens. As he argued, “all of the claims of superiority of the whites over the blacks, on account of their skin color, are founded alike in ignorance and inhumanity.”

Rush based this claim in part on the experimentation of another scientist who applied muriatic acid, a harsh corrosive, to the skin and hair of an African American man. Rush made no mention of the glaring moral problems with that practice.

Rush also shared stereotypes of his time on Native Americans. While interested in Native American medicine, he held a negative view of their culture and doubted their potential for citizenship.

In sum, Rush’s thinking reflected a particular, 18th-century historical moment. Many of his ideas, such as his claims about “black leprosy,” when viewed from the present, are particularly disconcerting. He articulated his views, however, within the context of firm abolitionism and an ultimate belief in human progress.