Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father
by Stephen Fried
Crown, 608 pp., hardcover $30

Benjamin Rush is difficult to write about, although at first glance that makes no sense. He was an interesting man who lived during interesting times, someone who knew prominent people and became prominent himself. He had opinions on everything and everyone, with an almost inexhaustible urge to write them down. What’s not to like for the biographer? Student of the Scottish and English Enlightenments, signer of the Declaration of Independence, first physician of the republic, friend of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — all of it seems to demand attention from historians. But to cover the breadth of Rush’s experience, one would have to master the scholarship on Colonial America, the American Revolution and the Early Republic; on the history of science, medicine and mental illness; on the age of Enlightenment and 18th-century religious belief; on the politics of republicanism and democracy; on race and ethnicity, Indians and slavery; and on numerous other fields of the period. What scholar today, in our age of specialization, could say that their command of all of this work is solid enough to write a biography of someone so complicated as Benjamin Rush? Tellingly, no scholar has even tried, credibly, for almost 50 years.

Stephen Fried has now bravely made his attempt. He has written an accessible and readable monograph that gamely tries to think of the creation of the republic through Rush. In an insightful comment, Fried claims that Rush was fixated on health, and he tended to view the successes and failures of the new republic as ones he hoped to diagnose, treat and cure. There are times Fried comes up short — his explanations of Rush’s Christianity remain under-developed, and there are moments when his narrative becomes untethered from his footnotes, leaving the reader to wonder where the information comes from. But any new assessments of Rush will now have to contend with this book. Rush is a man worth the time, and Fried’s monograph does some hard work to make a difficult man to understand more understandable.

Christopher Bilodeau
Dickinson College