Founders and the Constitution
Benjamin Rush (1745-1813)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Benjamin Rush. They will learn about Rush’s contributions to social reform in his community and country, his goals for education, and the roles he played during and after the Revolutionary period.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection. - Benjamin Rush (1786)
The fourth of seven children born to Quaker parents, Benjamin Rush was the most famous physician of his time. Known and respected by many of the Founding generation, Benjamin Rush treated illnesses such as yellow fever and smallpox, putting himself at great risk to do so. During the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s he often saw more than one hundred patients a day and published an account of his findings, An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the year 1793. His regular practice of bloodletting was surrounded by debate.
He did not limit his ingenuity to medicine. He also played a major role in revolutionary politics, attending the Continental Congress of 1776 and signing the Declaration of Independence. He and James Wilson led their home state of Pennsylvania to become the second state to ratify the new Constitution.
Decidedly revolutionary in his thinking, he worked to cure social ills such as slavery, alcoholism, and tobacco addiction. He was a pioneer in the study of mental illness and a champion of humanitarian reforms. He often said that, when it came to bringing about much-needed change, “Prudence is a rascally virtue.” His reputation was for innovation and candor, if sometimes to the point of tactlessness. Throughout his career, Rush pursued his revolutionary ideas with three goals in mind: to improve life, ensure liberty, and encourage the pursuit of happiness.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about Benjamin Rush. They should first read as homework Handout A—Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Rush on Education in which Rush outlines several goals for education in the new nation. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document. Handout D—Analysis: Contrasting Ideas of Education will help students understand how theories of education have evolved since the Founding.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options, which ask students to reflect further on Rush’s opinions and develop their own views, or to create an advertisement for a school based on Rush’s principles. Extensions asks students to compare Rush’s views on female education and the role of women with modern views, or to research and evaluate modern education theories and practices in terms of whether they contribute to Rush’s goal of a “homogeneous society.”
- explain Rush’s contributions to social reform in his community and country.
- compare the late eighteenth-century goals for education to modern philosophies.
- analyze Rush’s goals for education.
- evaluate modern educational theories and practices in terms of Rush’s ideas.
- appreciate the political roles Rush played during and after the Revolutionary period.
- Handout A—Benjamin Rush (1745–1813)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Rush on Education
- Handout D—Analysis: Contrasting Ideas of Education
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 1A, 3A; Era IV, Standard 4C
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Benjamin Rush (1745–1813) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Benjamin Rush.
Benjamin Rush was a Patriot, a physician, and a social reformer. He signed the Declaration of Independence and worked for the ratification of the Constitution in his home state of Pennsylvania. He was an ardent abolitionist, a crusader for humane treatment of the mentally ill, and an advocate of educational reform.
Context 5 min.
Briefly explain that one challenge for the fledgling nation was to create an educational system that was uniquely American. Most citizens tended to think of themselves as British. Once America had won its independence from Britain, however, education was one means of creating and sustaining a national identity.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Divide the class into seven groups, and have students discuss what three subjects they believe should always be taught to high school students. Then ask each group to write a one-sentence description answering the following question: “What should the goal of public education be?”
- Make a list on the right side of the board as groups report their answers to the class.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Rush on Education.
- Have each group read Handout C and complete the vocabulary and context questions on Handout B.
- Assign two paragraphs of the essay to each group and ask students to write a one-sentence main idea for their assigned paragraphs of Rush’s essay. (Each paragraph will be summarized by two groups.)
- When students have finished, distribute Handout D—Analysis: Contrasting Ideas of Education.
- Have each group of students that worked on the first paragraph report its main-idea sentence, and write an agreed-upon version on the left side of the board, across from the class’s earlier responses. Repeat for the remaining paragraphs.
- Have students fill out the left side of the chart on Handout D individually as groups report. Then, ask students to compare the modern goals generated by the class to Rush’s goals for education. If they find any which address the same goal for education, have them write that modern goal on the right side of the chart across from the corresponding box on the left.
- As a large group, discuss Rush’s goals for education and clarify any questions students have.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Ask students to consider Rush’s view that one goal of education is to create a more homogeneous society, and compare this view to the more modern focus on diversity in the classroom. How does modern American education encourage a more homogeneous society?
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Ask students to write a one-paragraph response to one or more of the following questions:
- Which of Rush’s ideas might have been controversial in 1798? Why?
- Which of Rush’s ideas might be controversial today? Why?
- Do you agree with Rush that “our strongest prejudices in favour of our country are formed in the first one and twenty years of our lives”? Why or why not?
- In your opinion, what is the best way to develop among young people an “attachment” to the laws and constitutions of this country?
- Ask students to pretend they are the principal of a school dedicated to Rush’s philosophy of education. Have them create a radio or print advertisement explaining their school’s goals to parents, and persuading those parents to enroll their children.
In his Lectures on The Mind, Rush stated that women were intellectually inferior to men. This difference, he believed, was natural and proper.
I hold it to be essential . . . to the order and happiness of domestic society, that there should exist exactly those degrees of inferiority and contrast between the two sexes. . . . Many of the disorders, not only of domestic, but of political society, I believe originate in the inversion of this order.
Source: Carlson, Eric T. et al, eds. Benjamin Rush’s Lectures on the Mind. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981.
- Ask students to compare paragraph six of Handout C with the paragraph above from Lectures of the Mind and write a three-paragraph response to the question: Were Rush’s views on educating women ahead of his time? Explain.
- Have students research and bring to class articles about contemporary education theories and practices such as single-sex classrooms, phonics, and bilingual education. Ask students to comment on these practices in a three to five paragraph essay: How do these practices contribute to Rush’s goal of a “homogeneous society”? How do they move away from it?
Barton, David. Benjamin Rush: Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Aledo: Wallbuilders, 1999.
Binger, Carl. Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746–1813. New York: Norton, 1966.
Carlson, Eric T., et al, eds. Benjamin Rush’s Lectures on The Mind. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1981.
D’Elia, Donald J. Benjamin Rush: Philosopher of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974.
“Benjamin Rush.” The Independence Hall Association. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/rush.htm>.
“Biography of Benjamin Rush.” Colonial Hall. Ed. John Vinci.<http://www.colonialhall.com/rush/rush.php>.
“Rush, Benjamin.” A Princeton Companion. <http://etcweb.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/rush_benjamin.html>.
By Benjamin Rush
- Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder by Death (1792)
- Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1798)
- Handout A: Benjamin Rush (1745–1813)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: Benjamin Rush on Education
- Handout D: Analysis: Contrasting Ideas of Education
- Thematic Essay