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Benjamin Rush's Role in the American Enlightenment

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about American Founding Father Benjamin Rush. We will highlight his achievements and we will explore his role in the American Enlightenment.

The American Enlightenment

Okay, let's test your knowledge. What was the name of the 18th century intellectual movement that emphasized reason, skepticism, scientific thinking, human progress, and tolerance? If you thought 'The Enlightenment' or the 'Age of Enlightenment,' you are our big winner!

The Enlightenment is an important piece of European modern history that spread to America and manifested in what has been called the American Enlightenment. Like the European Enlightenment, the American Enlightenment emphasized religious tolerance, Republicanism and political liberalization, and the flowering of the arts and sciences.

Leading figures of the American Enlightenment include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and others. Another figure of the American Enlightenment was Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), an American Founding Father who was also a prominent physician, educator, reformer, and humanitarian.

Dr. Benjamin Rush
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Background and Early Career

Benjamin Rush was born in 1746 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rush studied at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he earned his B.A. (Bachelor of Arts). He then continued his education in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned his M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) degree. He returned to the American Colonies in 1769 where he opened up a medical practice and became a professor at the University of Philadelphia.

Revolutionary Period

When the American Revolution broke out, Rush became involved with the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary activist group known for their rioting and often brutal tactics, such as tarring and feathering (though it's doubtful that Rush himself engaged in this degree of violence). Rush was elected to the Continental Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The Sons of Liberty were known for their brutal tactics of intimidation
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Because of his background in medicine, Rush was appointed Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army. Rush was dismayed to see the unsanitary conditions among the Continental Army, and he worked actively to improve military medical practices. This is perhaps one of his most notable contributions. Dr. Rush's Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers became a foundational text for modern military healthcare practices and was printed and distributed widely.

Rush was also outraged over corruption in the army and criticized those who engaged in misappropriation of food and supplies. On one occasion he criticized George Washington in a private letter to Virginia governor Patrick Henry. The letter eventually ended up in the hands of His Excellency (Washington), forcing Rush to resign in disgrace in 1778.

Post-War Practice and Contributions

After the war, Dr. Rush returned to practicing medicine and teaching. Despite his unpleasant incident with Washington, Rush soon gained a reputation for being one of America's foremost physicians. In preparation for the Lewis and Clark Expedition throughout the American West, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to study under Dr. Rush, where Lewis learned medical practices that would help him and his team survive the harrowing expedition.

Meriwether Lewis studied und-er Dr. Rush in preparation for his expedition of the American West
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