Current Issue Article Abstracts
Spring 2017, Vol. 15.2
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Special Issue: The Republics of Benjamin Rush
Guest editors: Sari Altschuler and Christopher J. Bilodeau
Introductory essay to a special issue devoted to articles on Benjamin Rush.
Benjamin Rush grappled more extensively than almost any other figure in the early republic with the question of the proper relationship of common sense to republican governance. He also changed his mind between the 1770s and the start of the new century about the answer. Exploring this intellectual trajectory reveals an enduring tension in American culture as a whole: between a populist view of democracy that promotes the practical, experiential wisdom of the people as the foundation for sound decision making, on the one hand, and a more technocratic conception of the political that insists on the importance of the exceptional judgment of leading individuals and experts, on the other. Rush can be said to be an originator of both.
The role science played in the early abolitionist movement has been almost entirely overlooked. This article demonstrates the ways Benjamin Rush, one of the early republic’s most prominent physicians and leading abolitionists, deployed scientific and medical ideas to advance his vision of a slave-free, white yeoman republic. In 1792 Rush famously argued that blackness was itself the symptom of a disease that slavery only made worse: if slaves were freed and taught proper Christian, republican values, blacks would eventually turn white. Rush also made several other lesser-known medical and scientific arguments that further bolstered his antislavery and political views. Both political and chattel slavery stifled the body’s natural desire for liberty, predisposing both black and white bodies to disease, he argued; in addition, he contended that yeoman farming—rather than slavery—required the ideal amount of physical exertion, which not only kept the body healthy but also created the conditions for responsible republican citizenship. This essay ultimately argues that Rush’s scientific ideas, and not just his scientific stature, added legitimacy to a particular vision of American nationhood that appealed to many white abolitionists in the early republic: the idea that slavery would eventually disappear, as would former slaves themselves.
This essay situates Benjamin Rush at the center of a diffuse campaign to halt the “alarming progress” of self-destruction in the newly formed United States. It argues that Rush understood suicide not only as a medical, psychological, and religious problem, but also as a symptom of social and political atomization. By founding or supporting organizations and initiatives designed to drape coercive impulses in the garb of disinterested charity and cosmopolitan benevolence, Rush tried to nurture new bonds of empathy that could serve ordering functions without ever appearing to challenge the primacy of the rational individual in liberal society. The result was a battery of highly visible campaigns intended to transform individual character by promoting reflection, self-improvement, self-respect, and, most important, self-control.
Recent scholarship on French Revolutionary refugees to the United States has demonstrated their importance to American politics in the 1790s. But while this literature places these refugees within preexisting networks in the French Atlantic, and within the context of the imperial conflicts of the late eighteenth century, it largely ignores their long-term importance to the nineteenth-century United States. In tracing the life of Natalie Delage Sumter—an aristocratic Frenchwoman who immigrated to the United States in 1793 and married into the prominent Sumter family of South Carolina in 1802—this article points to the ways that former refugees continued to participate in trans-Atlantic networks and retain elements of French culture, even as they embraced a life in the United States. As an adult, Sumter sought to square her aristocratic and royalist past with her life in the United States, primarily through family and faith. Her family ties across the Atlantic world, and her support of the Catholic Church and its nascent institutions in the United States, provided Sumter with economic, ideological, and emotional support and were the basis of her lifelong cosmopolitanism.
An important and underappreciated legacy of Doctor Benjamin Rush is his capacity as reconciler in the founding era—and not just in his late-in-life role in reuniting John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Persuasion, diplomacy, and the art of compromise may not be what first come to mind as descriptors for Benjamin Rush, but they were qualities of his carefully cultivated training and formative experience. His position as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, social and educational reformer, and leading medical practitioner of his day is well known. While his reconciling impulse can be understood as a manifestation of the culture of sympathy and sensibility in the early republic, Rush’s conciliatory nature was informed by a wide variety of factors, including his ardent Christianity, the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on his education and medical training, his commitment to a particular vision of republicanism, and his fundamental belief in the harmony of peace. His notions of reconciliation grew out of a vision of viable and virtuous republican conduct that colored the way he saw individual and social relations between people he deemed to be good republicans. In serving as a mediator or bridge builder for others in specific situations, he reaped the benefits of enhanced reputation for himself as well. This essay will show the contexts in which Rush can be remembered as conciliator in the early republic and the possible lessons about friendship and reconciliation they offer in a highly charged ideological environment where courage is needed to be an active citizen and custodian of common ground. Just as Rush the physician spent his career healing ailing bodies, he also sought to heal relationships in the body politic and hold tensions in life-giving ways. Exploring a neglected aspect of his life, this essay demonstrates Rush’s strength as a reconciler of fractured friendships and as a bridge builder in the early republic.
Benjamin Rush argued for particular forms of union and nation at the very moment those political concepts were undergoing an evolution. The Age of Revolution introduced new ways to imagine federal bodies and governing constitutions, and Rush and his contemporaries were forced to adapt accordingly. This essay examines how Rush and one of his colleagues, Noah Webster, addressed the problem of nationality at the moment of America’s independence in order to investigate the tensions of cultural continuity during a moment of political disruption. In a nation full of so many diverse populations, how was it possible to conceive of a governing structure that matched the character of the governed?