In Defense of Benjamin Rush

Shane Shuma ’22, Opinion Columnist

At the inclusivity meeting last Sunday, one speaker’s speech especially piqued my interest. A person at the meeting tried to tarnish the image of Dickinson College’s founder, Benjamin Rush. The Founding Father was accused of racism and bigotry. Even the idea of removing his statue was floated around, although this idea was not thoroughly endorsed by the speaker. By claiming that Benjamin Rush was just another bigot, the speaker was trying to lump Benjamin Rush’s legacy and his statue with that of Confederate war figures legacies and their statues. To even say Benjamin Rush’s name and terms like “bigot” or “Confederate” in the same sentence is to ignore the tremendous service that he has provided to our country and society. 

To set the record straight, Benjamin Rush was a firm abolitionist and did not support slavery. Regarding slavery, he said, “The first thing I would recommend to put a stop to slavery in this country, is to leave off importing slaves. For this purpose, let our assemblies unite in petitioning the king and parliament to dissolve the African committee of merchants: It is by them that the trade is chiefly carried on to America.” Not only was Benjamin Rush against the slave trade, but as he stated this was simply supposed to be a first step in the total abolition of slavery. He wanted the eventual end to slavery, but he knew that in order to affect change in the new United States that he and fellow abolitionists had to compromise. 

Benjamin Rush also did not hold supremacist views. One of the most bizarre claims the speaker made was that Benjamin Rush had explicitly stated that people of African descent were less intelligent than the peoples of Europe. This could not be farther from the truth. Regarding the intelligence of African Americans, Rush stated, “I need say hardly anything in the Unintelligence of the Negroes, They show capacities of Providence and they are most likely always having low self-esteem. But needless to say my Virtue, Power, And Strength have helped them to become strong most upcoming individuals in the nation. They show pride and interest in education and learning new things. And just know what lies with you once lies with you more until change is done.” This quote does admittedly sound racially charged at first. There is also evidence of the time period in which Rush lived in his quote but considering context his views at the time were very progressive.  In a time where many people in America had bigoted views against people of color, Rush was stating that they had the potential to succeed, that they wanted to be educated, and that they just needed to have self-confidence. Rush didn’t see them as a subservient people, but as an oppressed people with incredible potential. I still don’t know where the speaker got their misconceived notion that Benjamin Rush was a white supremacist, but if they had simply taken the time to move past ideological narratives and look at the facts, they would never have made their defamatory claims.  

Benjamin Rush was not only a progressive and an active abolitionist, but he also served the country in many other ways. He served in the Continental Congress and put his own life in danger when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Rush was also a brilliant medical mind and considered a founding member of American psychiatry because of his study of mental disorder. After the bitter election of 1800 between Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams resulted in hard feelings, he helped reconcile the two friends. He also served the city of Philadelphia during the devastating Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Rush sought the help of African American community leaders like Absalom Jones and others who would later go on to form the first African American churches in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush also founded many educational institutions, including Dickinson College. After founding his new college, Benjamin Rush was so humble that he named the college after his good friends John and Mary Dickinson.

Benjamin Rush was a great man whose life had a tremendous impact on this country and on this campus. He was a firm abolitionist and was progressive for his time. It’s easy to presume that Benjamin Rush was just “another evil white guy”, but if the speaker had known more about his past, they never would have even floated the idea of removing Benjamin Rush’s statue. 

His statue inspires me every day, and I hope it inspires you to be your best self as well. Before making sweeping generalizations of a great person like Benjamin Rush, make sure the beliefs you attempt to attribute to them are consistent with their legacy.