From supermodels to rabbis, the subjects of award-winning investigative journalist Stephen Fried’s six books have been nothing if not diverse.
Now, with “Rush: Revolution, Madness and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father,” this Harrisburg native has entered the territory of writers like David McCullough to produce a comprehensive biography of Benjamin Rush, a major figure in American history whose legacy has slipped, unfairly, into the shadows.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Constitutional Convention, pioneer in the humane treatment of mental illness, vigorous advocate for racial, religious and gender equality and founder of Dickinson College, lifelong Philadelphian Rush had a unique vantage point from which to observe the birth of the American nation and the growing pains of its early years.
In an interview from his Philadelphia home, “down the street from the American Revolution,” as he describes it, Fried, who teaches journalism at both the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, explained that he was drawn to Rush as a subject because the story allowed him to marry his interest in the problem of mental illness (he co-authored a 2015 book on the subject with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy) to an account of the American Revolution.
Rush, who was born in 1745 and died in 1813, offered the added benefit to a historian of a life that spanned a profoundly significant era. He was a “very political doctor trying to do important work in Philadelphia, who’s a wide-eyed revolutionary when the big guys come to town and, within two years, he’s one of them,” Fried remarked.
Rush had been engaged prominently in political activity as far back as 1773, when he co-wrote the anti-tax broadside that led to the Boston Tea Party and helped usher Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” into print.
Returning to Philadelphia after his participation in the Revolutionary War, in which he served as surgeon general to Washington’s troops in some of the bleakest days of the conflict, Rush resumed his medical practice, and by the mid-1780s, entered into a period of intense public engagement that included a major address to the American Philosophical Society in 1786. In that talk, Fried explained, Rush “lays down the framework for seeing addiction and mental illness as diseases and not failures of will or religious faith, which is how they were viewed at the time.”
Along with Benjamin Franklin, Rush worked to revive the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. A man of strong Christian faith (in contrast to many of the Deist founders), Rush was someone who, as Fried described it, “believed that religious liberty was bigger than organized religion,” opposing a religious test for public office in the proposed Pennsylvania constitution, as merely one illustration of his broadminded views.
Rush carried on an extensive correspondence with John Adams and was responsible for reconciling Adams and Thomas Jefferson a dozen years after the bitter election battle of 1800. The desire of Rush’s family and these ex-presidents to suppress this intensely personal correspondence, Fried argues, was one of the reasons he’s fallen into relative obscurity.
In letters like these, and a profusion of other writings, from which Fried quotes extensively in his book, Rush passionately articulated, in eloquent, but accessible prose, his vision of equality and liberty for the nascent American society.
“What I love about Rush,” Fried said, his enthusiasm for his subject evident in his voice, “is that the minute there is America, he starts realizing what the challenges will be. He doesn’t write about them as if he’s fixing them or that they will be easily fixed. He lays down the challenges: the challenge between science and religion; the challenge between liberty and good government.”
Central to Rush’s importance, he continued, is “how correctly he identified the main friction points dividing America and how reasonable his approaches to these things are. They still have great value today because he wrestles with them; he’s candid about the need to wrestle with them. The American experiment is that we’re going to wrestle with this. It’s always the best we can do. We wrestle with them and we ask: ‘How is America going to be different than other countries?’”
Fried is excited about returning to his hometown to discuss his book.
“Harrisburg is the greatest place to be from in the world,” he said, noting his many friendships here and the warm support he’s received from the local community for his previous work.
Asked to offer some final thoughts on Rush’s legacy and its contemporary relevance, Fried was emphatic about his enduring importance in American history.
“The message Rush spent most of his career trying to convince people of—of equality, of racial, religious, gender equality—I wish we could say that we had made more progress in these areas, but we haven’t made enough. Rush would probably say he didn’t expect us to, but that he always expected the challenge would be one that we would be open about and try to do better. We didn’t invent a country to have a perfect union. We invented a country to have an increasingly more perfect union. Rush really understood that.”
Stephen Fried will be at Beth El Temple, 2637 N. Front St., Harrisburg, on Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. for a presentation and book signing. General admission tickets are $25 ($20 for students) and include a dessert reception. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office at 717-232-0556. To learn more about Fried and his work, visit stephenfried.com.