Benjamin Rush, the First ‘Peacenik’
Dickinson’s founder advocated for a Peace Office to counterbalance the new nation’s War Office
by Eric Cox '54
April 1, 2010
Eric Cox is the author of Conversations with George Washington and Benjamin Rush
In the March-April issue the staggering array of accomplishments of Dr. Rush was mentioned: writing the first texts on mental health and chemistry, founding three colleges; his pioneering work for the education of women and the humane treatment of the mentally ill, establishing the first free medical clinic and helping form the first antislavery society.
In spite of these impressive accomplishments, and others to be mentioned, he remains largely unknown to the public. There are two main reasons for his relative obscurity. One is that he never held high national office while historians wrote mainly about key elected officials. The other is that he locked horns with George Washington, our most revered leader. He disagreed with Washington politically, on his leadership of the Revolutionary War and on the handling of the Army Medical Service of which Rush was the chief surgeon. His unsuccessful fight with Washington diminished Rush in the eyes of many.
But back to Rush’s other accomplishments. He is credited with ending the 12-year feud between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He was most proud of this effort. One result was an extensive exchange of letters between our second and third presidents, to the delight of historians.
Also, it can be argued that among our founding fathers, and Rush should be considered one, he was by far the most antimilitary. It’s true that many of our early leaders were leery of the military as a class. Included was George Washington who warned the nation in his farewell address that large standing armies were incompatible with republican government. Fast forward to the farewell address of our second most respected general who also became president, namely Dwight Eisenhower. In his farewell address he too warned of the dangers to society of the military.
If returned from the grave, Rush would be appalled that Congress continues to give half of discretionary spending to the military while ignoring other pressing needs, including 20 percent of children living in poverty, the homeless, and deteriorating schools.
Rush was not just against the military as a caste. He went a step further, proposing that our new federal government have a department of peace. He was quite specific as to its duties and how it should relate to the nation’s War Office.
He hoped that no objection would be made to establishing a Peace Office while engaging in a war with the Indians. He noted that the War Office was created in a time of peace. Therefore, he observed it to be equally reasonable that a Peace Office should be established in time of war.
He proposed that the Secretary of Peace be an educator and establish free schools in every city for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic and the doctrines of religion, including loving one’s enemies. As a condition of peace, he wanted the death penalty abolished to prevent the state from committing “murder in cold blood in any case whatsoever.” Rush advocated that all aspects of a military culture be avoided, including military dress, parades and military titles.
Also, he proposed bold ideas for the War Office, including a sign over its door that included these gripping insights: “An office for butchering the human species” and “A Widow and Orphanmaking office.” In the lobby of the War Office he wanted pictures of human skulls, broken bones and putrefying dead bodies.
Two hundred years later, in modified form, a U.S. Institute of Peace was established. Rush would have been pleased that in 1985 a bus-load of students from Dickinson College, which he founded, came to Washington to lobby for the creation of this institute.
It can be argued that Rush was instrumental in the founding of the United States. In addition to getting Tom Paine to write Common Sense, he made sure the revolutionary soldiers were inoculated against smallpox. Had he not protected them against this deadly disease, the war might not have been won.
This move reflected the innovative medical views of Rush. It’s true that he was a blood-letter, as were most doctors here and abroad. But he was also a holistic doctor, advocating exercise and a sensible diet with little red meat and heavy emphasis on vegetables, and he so advised the revolutionary troops.
One word that best describes Rush is that he was prescient, as many of the causes he pioneered were embraced in later years. Stern of demeanor, he was not a person to be taken lightly. He had little patience with those bold enough to disagree with him. And he paid a price for his outspoken views on every important issue of the day.
The type of opposition he engendered can be gleaned from a contemporary newspaper account: “He is contemptible in every point of view ... contradicting himself ten times a minute ... a lie is generally his instrument.” But he could match such attacks measure for measure. He once observed that no important discovery or improvement in any art or science was ever made by a Tory, adding for good measure “their prejudices are as cartilaginous or bony upon all subjects as they are upon the subject of government.”
Rush wanted to be remembered by just three words: he aimed well. In writing to his beloved wife, Julia, whom he considered the dear right side of his heart, he noted her faith in him, despite his “passions, infirmities and enemies.” She wrote back with love and humor: “Me thinks I hear you cry out ... alas, my poor husband, he is crazy as ever.”
Copyright The Human Quest July/August 1999
This essay also is available in Eric Cox’s book, Conversations with George Washington and Benjamin Rush, which may be purchased at Amazon.com.