From These Grounds
July 1, 2012
The notions of war and peace normally stand diametrically opposed, giving rise to strong ideological difference—but not at Dickinson. We appreciate complexity. How could this be? As always with a college of our age and venerable founding, the answer is located in history—specifically, in the words and actions of founder Dr. Benjamin Rush and namesake Gov. John Dickinson. My graduate-school mentor at Johns Hopkins University asserted that all contemporary ideas are but a reworking of 18th-century thought. Since my specialization was German literature and ideas of the 18th century, I was most pleased with this assessment.
Rush, an unflagging advocate of the American colonies’ separation from England, accepted unconditionally the use of military force to do so. In fact, he was appointed in April 1777 to serve in the Continental Army as surgeon general and saw action at numerous skirmishes. However, Rush’s embrace of war was not monolithic. Appalled by the deplorable conditions in which he found the medical service, he became embroiled with George Washington and one of his old professors, William Shippen (namesake of Shippensburg University), in accusations of poor management. When Washington and Congress sided with Shippen, Rush resigned his commission in protest.
The incident led him to express his doubts about the commander in chief’s leadership abilities in an unsigned letter to Patrick Henry (there was apparently no need to sign the letter, as its source was unmistakable). Henry covertly passed the letter to Washington, thus ending Rush’s military career. Arguably, Rush was the first officer in the history of the U.S. military who challenged a commander in chief during war. Tellingly for the new nation, Washington did not put Rush to death, and ultimately his observations were accepted by Washing-ton, resulting in better medical care that contributed significantly to the Continental Army’s success.
But Rush was even more demonstrative in challenging the notion of war itself. Eric Cox ’54 describes the situation well in his essay:
"Rush … propos[ed] 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 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 Orphan-making office.’ In the lobby of the War Office he wanted pictures of human skulls, broken bones and putrefying dead bodies."
John Dickinson, of course, was one of the earlier colonists to protest the oppression of Great Britain. Yet when it came to declaring war, he stumbled. Notoriously, he did not sign the Declaration of Independence—a document clearly acknowledged to be a direct step to war. To this day, his reasons for this are the subject of much scholarly debate. Often his Quaker heritage is cited, as is the notion that he simply believed that the Continental Army was not prepared for war and would lose against Great Britain. He also is noted as one who believed that talking could always avert war and was far more preferable. Yet, this same person who did not support war immediately joined the militia and rose to the rank of brigadier. In fact, he was one of the few members of Congress to have served in the Continental Army.
For our founder and namesake, war and peace are both part of one fabric of commitment and leadership. To hold Rush and Dickinson to a lifelong clarity of belief is fruitless. This ability of Rush and Dickinson to embrace contradictory notions is best articulated by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Self Reliance” and by an observation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both rebuke the notion of steadfastly adhering to blind, uninformed consistency and an inability to live in the “gray” (at Dickinson we talk about living “on the diagonal”).
Emerson states, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”
And Fitzgerald was most concise: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”