“I’m taking this one”, I excitedly announced to Jenna, the staff person behind the counter at Booktowne last week with July 4 looming. It turned out to be one of several proofs that I took, pledging to read them all and do a write up if one struck my fancy, which the memoir on Rush certainly did – perhaps because so much of it is ensconced in the story of the American Revolution. Here is a brief synopsis from the Kirkus Review.
Biographical information on Benjamin Rush is readily available, for example this piece from Univ. of Pennsylvania’s Archives & Records Center. Rush is memorialized in Philadelphia, and in Chicago by a med school bearing his name, but this penetrating work by Stephen Fried due out at the end of September brings him to a much wider audience.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that Dr. Benjamin Rush was a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, his name found below John Hancock’s, and surrounded by more familiar names such as Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, and Jefferson. Among the many less luminous of the 56 signatories was John Stockton, known principally these days in New Jersey for the Jersey Turnpike Rest Stop that bears his name, and of course Stockton University.
Benjamin Rush married Richard Stockton’s daughter, Julia, who was considerably younger. It wasn’t until Julia’s death in 1848 that his voluminous papers left in her possession passed on to the next generation. A substantial number of these papers were inherited by James, one of the Rush sons, who married the wealthy Phoebe Ridgeway. Having inherited his Phoebe’s fortune upon her death in 1857, James donated a million dollars to house a library in her name on South Broad Street that would be a repository for Benjamin Rush’s papers. The Ridgeway Library is a centerpiece of what is now Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA).
The papers that didn’t make their way to Ridgeway wound up in the hands of Julia Williams Rush, the daughter of James’ brother Samuel. Julia married into the prominent Biddle family, with its rich Quaker tradition, most recently upheld by Jesse Biddle – a pitcher selected by the Phillies in the first round in 2010 after having starred for Germantown Friends, a Quaker School in Philadelphia. (Jesse by the way flamed out with the Phils, but is now pitching well for their divisional rivals in Atlanta.) Another of the Biddle lineage who can be seen in or around Philadelphia is Gail Biddle Cooper, friend to Miriam and me and the Museum of the American Revolution.
In his afterword, Fried writes: “In the early 1890s, Julia Rush Biddle’s husband, Alexander Biddle, ordered transcriptions of two sets of the papers his wife had inherited: a selection of the letters John Adams had written to Rush (without any of his replies) and a selection of the letters Rush had written to his wife during the yellow fever epidemic (without any of her replies). These were privately published in 1892 under the nondescript title Old Family Letters: copied from the Originals for Alexander Biddle … In the early 1940s, the last of the children of Julia Williams Rush Biddle died, and the estate hired a Manhattan auction house to hold one of the largest sales of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary ‘signature’ documents ever. There were more than nine hundred lots, sold at three massive auctions during the summer and fall of 1943, involving multiple examples of previously unknown signed letters from every major and minor Founding Father. The sale literally altered the history of American history, not only leading to new writing on Rush but also fueling a revival of interest in John and Abigail Adams and other founders.”
Just after the bicentennial in 1976, Julia Rush Biddle Henry, Benjamin Rush’s great, great, granddaughter (who died in 1979 at the age of 92) donated a large collection of letters to and from Dr. Rush and Julia to the Rosenbach Library on Delancey Place in Philadelphia.
Among these letters were a shocking one that Rush had written to Julia in early 1778 about the possibility of forcing out George Washington, whose ability to lead was in question, and which Fried and his researchers transcribed for what they believe is the first time.