Monday, December 3, 2018

Q&A with Harlow Giles Unger

Harlow Giles Unger, photo courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies Association
Harlow Giles Unger is the author of the new biography Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation. His many other books include biographies of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. He is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington's Mount Vernon and worked as a journalist for many years.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Dr. Benjamin Rush in your latest biography?

A: Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the few who owned no slaves and took the words “all men are created equal” literally. The only signer with an M.D. degree, he was the only American leader who fought for independence, not to end British taxation, but to end slavery, obtain equal rights for women, and end child labor.

Q: You describe Rush as "the nation's first great humanitarian." Why do you see him that way, and how was he seen during his lifetime?

A: Unlike most others who signed the Declaration of Independence to prevent Britain from taxing them, Dr. Benjamin Rush was alone in demanding independence from Britain to ensure all Americans—men, and women, and children of all races and creeds—the “rights of man,” as they were called then.

Listed in part in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the rights of man in America came to mean, among other individual freedoms, equal rights and protection under the law; security of one’s person from unlawful arrest, prosecution, and persecution; trial by a jury of one’s peers in cases of legitimate prosecution; freedom of speech; and freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice.

Though often alone in calling for social reforms, his fellow Founding Fathers revered him, with President John Adams saying, “Rush has not left his equal in America, nor that I know, in the world.” President Thomas Jefferson agreed. After learning of Rush’s death, he stated, “A better man than Rush could not have left us, more benevolent, more learned, of finer genius or more honest.”

Q: You also call him the "father of psychiatry"--the title of one of the book's chapters. What was his impact on this field, and what is his legacy today?

A: I called Dr. Rush the “Father of Psychiatry” because that is what the American Psychiatric Association called him, even placing a bronze plaque to that effect on his grave in Philadelphia. The association carries his image on its official seal.

His impact on the field of psychiatry is evident today in the use of psychotherapy as a basic treatment in psychiatric care—a technique he invented and called “talk therapy” a century before Freud adapted it in treating patients in Vienna, Austria.

Dr. Rush also invented the earliest forms of occupational and physical therapy, which remain basic to many modern medical and psychiatric treatments.

In addition to having laid the foundations of modern psychiatry, Rush’s name is blazoned across Chicago’s enormous Rush University, one of the nation’s premier institutions in the fields of medicine and science. It includes Rush University Medical Center, Rush College of Nursing, the College of Health Sciences at Rush University, the Graduate College at Rush University, and Rush Medical College.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything you found particularly fascinating?

A: Researching my book Dr. Benjamin Rush meant reading and studying several thousand books, articles, and manuscripts—many written by Rush himself—in libraries and repositories in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

Apart from books and articles by Rush listed in the bibliography of my book, I also read and studied an enormous amount of correspondence to him and about him written by the Founding Fathers of our nation who knew Rush personally—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, to name just a few.

What was evident from my research was how advanced his thinking was in the field of human rights. Indeed, he stood all but alone among the Founding Fathers to call for equal rights for all Americans, regardless of gender, race, and creed—rights still denied to some extent to many women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and certain religious groups.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A biography of Thomas Paine, whose words in the fiery 1776 document Common Sense all but ensured American victory and independence in the Revolutionary War.

Paine’s words were like no others in history, leaping off the page, embracing readers—indeed, whole peoples. In an age when spoken and written words were the only forms of communication, Thomas Paine’s writings aroused men to action like no others, inspiring them to change their lives, their governments, their kings, and even their gods.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes, indeed. When 37-year-old Thomas Paine arrived in America, the first friend he made was Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom he met in a Philadelphia book store, where they chatted and discussed their views on British rule. With encouragement from Rush, Paine began writing an essay, showing it to Rush at various stages of its development, but untitled.

After Paine had written that “nothing…could be more absurd” than giving power over others to a man simply because he was first-born in a particular household, Rush agreed, suggesting that Paine call his essay "Common Sense." It became the best-selling publication in history after the Bible, with George Washington declaring it the most influential document in convincing Americans to fight for independence.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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