People & Events
1745 - 1813
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Benjamin Rush was a prominent Presbyterian doctor and professor of chemistry in Philadelphia, and one of the black community's strongest white allies. The son of a Philadelphia gunsmith and slaveowner, Rush studied at Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey), and then went to Edinburgh and Paris for his medical training.
In 1773 Rush returned to Philadelphia and started practicing. At the request of Anthony Bezenet , a white Quaker reformer and staunch ally of the black community, Rush wrote a pamphlet entitled "An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping," which was a scathing attack not just on the slave trade, but on the entire institution of slavery. Rush, Benezet, and others like them saw the need for a large spectrum of social reforms, from the treatment of prisoners to temperance to abolition. Their ideas were based on a philosophy of natural rights combined with the sentiments of the Great Awakening and the revolutionary age. Rush was the first civic leader to call for free public education in Philadelphia, supported by a property tax, arguing in 1787 that "a republican nation can never be long free and happy" without an educated populace.
Rush was a member of the Continental Congress, and in 1776 was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He served as surgeon-general, and later physician-general, of the Continental army. In 1799 he was appointed treasurer of the U.S. Mint.
Rush became an ardent abolitionist in 1787 after having a dream in which the ghost of Benezet, who had died in 1784, came walking down the beach to meet a group of Africans who had been relating stories about the horrors of slavery to Rush. He awoke from the dream determined to fill the gap left by Benezet's death. Though still a slaveowner himself, Rush decided to dedicate himself to the cause of his "black brethren." He became one of the most active members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, helping to write up a new constitution for the organization, and serving as its secretary. In 1788 he also promised freedom to his slave, William Grubber.
In his efforts to aid Philadelphia's black community, Rush was heavily involved in promoting the African Church. He also recruited Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other blacks to help him attend the sick during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.
Rush died in 1813, just as his former pupil, Charles Caldwell, was gaining national recognition for his theories on innate racial differences and the inferiority of Africans and their descendents -- a position that Rush had spent much of his life attempting to disprove.
Portrait of Benjamin Rush
Rush's letter to Julia Rush
Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society
The Yellow Fever epidemic
Rush's letter to Samuel Bayard
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