The Republics of Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush statue on the Dickinson campus.

by Christine Baksi

Scholars of Dickinson College founder Benjamin Rush will gather here March 20-22 for an academic conference that examines the prominent Philadelphia physician’s contributions to the politics and culture of the early American republic. Hosted by Dickinson, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, The Republics of Benjamin Rush conference has attracted more than 20 Rush scholars from institutions throughout the U.S., U.K. and Canada, including Yale and Columbia universities and the University of Cambridge. 

Organizers Jeremy Ball and Christopher Bilodeau, associate professors of history, say a series of presentations and roundtable discussions promise an honest examination of Rush’s intellectual contributions to American culture, placing him within the context of his time. “We have a group of scholars who will not only talk about Rush, the historical figure, but the memory of Rush, and a broader conversation about how people use the founding fathers and the founding period today,” says Bilodeau, adding that special emphasis will be placed on Rush’s concept of a useful education aimed at developing globally engaged citizens, which stands today as one of Dickinson’s core values.

A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush chartered Dickinson in 1783. In addition to being one of the leading physicians of his day, Rush played vital roles in the political and institutional development of the U.S., advocating for criminal-justice reform, new approaches to treat the mentally ill and the abolition of slavery among other causes. His interest in republican government also prompted his involvement in educational reform. 

The conference is the natural outgrowth of the Benjamin Rush Summer Study Group that formed in 2011 to engage in a deep historical analysis of Rush’s essays and other published materials. “One of the recommendations of that study group was to host an academic conference focused on the writings and legacy of Dr. Rush,” says Ball. With the 200th anniversary of Rush’s death in 2013, says Bilodeau, “We thought we should have a more broad, scholarly and intellectual understanding of Rush in an intimate and thoughtful way.” 

On March 21, Sophia Rosenfeld, professor of history at the University of Virginia, and research associate with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, will present the keynote, Benjamin Rush’s Common Sense, based on her most recent book, Common Sense: A Political History. The book explores the relationship between the idea of common sense and the development of democracy in Great Britain, America and continental western Europe, including France and the Netherlands, with a focus on the 18th century. Rosenfeld is the author of A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France and the forthcoming book, The Choices We Make: The Roots of Modern Freedom. She has written widely on the ideas and culture of the Enlightenment and age of revolutions in France and the new world. 

Rosenfeld, who The Wall Street Journal called “a shrewd and inventive historian,” is the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Mark Lynton History Prize from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and the 2012 Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) Book Prize.  

The conference is open to the campus and surrounding communities. Program and registration information can be found online.

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Rediscovering Rush


Published Mar. 17, 2014