“Disease has destroyed ten men for us, where the sword of the enemy has killed one” – wrote John Adams to his wife Abigail, April 13, 1777.
At the beginning of the Revolution, an estimated 30 percent of soldiers became infected with smallpox. This largely began when the British evacuated Boston, which they had occupied for nine months, and left their infected soldiers behind. Spreading across the continent, the smallpox epidemic killed an estimated 145,000 settlers and Indians.
Fortunately for General Washington, he was immune to smallpox as he had contracted it at the age of 19 when he traveled to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence.
On July 4, 1775, Washington cautioned against travel around Boston: “… as there may be danger of introducing smallpox into the army.”
On July 20, 1775, Washington wrote to Congress, that he had: “… been particularly attentive to the least symptoms of the smallpox … We shall continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”
Washington directed Lieut. Col. Loammi Baldwin to prevent officers from meeting: “… with the people who … came out of Boston … There is great reason to suspect that the smallpox is amongst them, which every precaution must be used to prevent its spreading.”
In November of 1775, Washington noted: “… smallpox is now in Boston, I have used the precaution of prohibiting such as lately came out from coming near our camp.”
On Dec. 15, 1775, Washington explained to Joseph Reed that: “… smallpox is in every part of Boston … a surety against any attempt of ours to attack. If we escape the smallpox in this camp … it will be miraculous. Every precaution that can be is taken to guard against this evil.”
On Dec. 4, 1775, Washington informed Congress that the British were sending civilians infected with smallpox out of the city: “By recent information … General Howe is going to send out a number of the inhabitants. … A sailor says that a number of these coming out have been inoculated with the design of spreading the smallpox through this … camp.”
On Jan. 1, 1777, British ships sailing under the flag of truce released 200 American prisoners suffering from smallpox at Connecticut’s Milford Harbor. Within a month, 46 had died along with one of their caregivers, Captain Stephen Stow.
British officer Robert Donkin had suggested, as cited in a book published in 1777: “Dip arrows in matter of smallpox, and twang them at the American rebels. … This would … disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages.”
Quebec may have been captured by Americans in December of 1775, and Canada quite possibly could have become part of the United States had it not been for smallpox.
American Captain Hector McNeal told a Congressional Committee investigating the failure of the army’s expedition to Canada: “Smallpox was sent out of Quebec by (British) Governor Guy Carleton, inoculating the poor people at government expense for the purpose of giving it to our army.”
General Benedict Arnold reported that nearly 1,200 American troops at Montreal were also suffering from smallpox: “From the 1st of January to the 1st of March, we have never had more than seven hundred effective men on the ground, and frequently not more than five hundred.”
Washington quoted from a letter by General Sullivan that: “The army is sickly, many with the smallpox, and he is apprehensive the militia ordered to join them will not escape the infection.”
General Gates conceded: “As fine an Army as has ever marched into Canada has this year been entirely ruined with smallpox. The line of retreat extended near 13 miles distance and a great part of them sick with smallpox.”
John Adams, wrote from Philadelphia, June of 1776: “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt a heart of stone. The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”
George Washington wrote his concerns regarding inoculating his troops: “Should We inoculate generally, the Enemy, knowing it, will certainly take Advantage of our Situation.”
The threat of smallpox did not lessen until widespread inoculations were called for by Dr. Benjamin Rush, born Jan. 4, 1745. Dr. Benjamin Rush was Surgeon General of the Continental Army, tending wounds on battlefields and treating soldiers at Valley Forge. Dr. Rush personally inoculated Virginia Governor Patrick Henry against smallpox, as well as Pennsylvania troops, resulting in their low rate of illness.
Dr. Benjamin Rush had studied medicine in Philadelphia, then in Europe under the world’s foremost physicians, and then returned to Philadelphia in 1769. Though some of his practices are archaic by today’s standards, he is considered the “Father of American Medicine” for his work on staff at the Pennsylvania Hospital, where he opened the first free medical clinic. He was among the first to recognize alcoholism as a disease and began to promote temperance. Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote the first textbook on mental illness and psychiatry, recommending treatment with kindness, earning him the title “Father of American Psychiatry.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush was a member of the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. His wife was Julia, was the daughter of Richard Stockton, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Paine consulted with Dr. Benjamin Rush when writing his stirring pamphlet “Common Sense.” Dr. Rush helped write Pennsylvania’s Constitution and was as a member of the Pennsylvania State Convention which ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787. He was treasurer of the U.S. Mint.
Dr. Benjamin Rush helped found Dickinson College to train physicians, and the Philadelphia Dispensary. During the dread summer of 1793, Dr. Rush stayed in Philadelphia battling the disease of yellow fever, which killed thousands. He was the first to recognize that yellow fever was not contagious, leading to the later discovery that it was spread by mosquito bites.
Dr. Benjamin Rush supported ending slavery prior to the Revolution, forming a Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He founded a Sunday School Union and the Philadelphia Bible Society.
Perhaps Dr. Benjamin Rush’s most beloved contribution to American history was in 1812 encouraging John Adams to write to Thomas Jefferson, breaking the silence which had existed between them for years due to earlier political differences.
A proponent of public education, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote his “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” 1786: “I proceed … to inquire what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all of the advantages that are to be derived from the proper instruction of the youth; and here I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament. … Its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in “A Plan for Free Schools,” 1787: “Let the children … be carefully instructed in the principles and obligations of the Christian religion. This is the most essential part of education.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush to Jeremy Belknap, July 13, 1789: “The great enemy of the salvation of man, in my opinion, never invented a more effectual means of extirpating Christianity from the world than by persuading mankind that it was improper to read the Bible at schools.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in an essay, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible as a School Book,” included in his 1798 work, “Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical”: “The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life. … It should be read in our schools in preference to all other books from its containing the greatest portion of that kind of knowledge which is calculated to produce private and public temporal happiness.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in “Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical,” 1798: “I know there is an objection among many people to teaching children doctrines of any kind, because they are liable to be controverted. But let us not be wiser than our Maker. If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into all the world would have been unnecessary. The perfect morality of the Gospel rests upon the doctrine which, though often controverted has never been refuted: I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush stated: “Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote his “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” 1786: “A Christian cannot fail of being a republican … for every precept of the Gospel inculcates those degrees of humility, self-denial, and brotherly kindness which are directly opposed to the pride of monarchy. … A Christian cannot fail of being useful to the republic, for his religion teaches him that no man ‘liveth to himself.’ And lastly a Christian cannot fail of being wholly inoffensive, for his religion teaches him in all things to do to others what he would wish, in like circumstances, they should do to him.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush explained in “Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical,” 1798: “Christianity is the only true and perfect religion, and that in proportion as mankind adopts its principles and obeys its precepts, they will be wise and happy. … In contemplating the political institutions of the United States, I lament that we waste so much time and money in punishing crimes and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by the means of the Bible. For this Divine book, above all others, favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws, and those sober and frugal virtues, which constitute the soul of republicanism.”
On July 9, 1788, in a letter to Elias Boudinot regarding a parade in Philadelphia, Dr. Benjamin Rush stated: “The Rabbi of the Jews locked arms of two ministers of the Gospel was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote: “I have been alternately called an Aristocrat and a Democrat. I am neither. I am a Christocrat. I believe all power … will always fail of producing order and happiness in the hands of man. He alone who created and redeemed man is qualified to govern him.”
During his final illness, Benjamin Rush wrote to his wife: “My excellent wife, I must leave you, but God will take care of you. By the mystery of Thy holy incarnation; by Thy holy nativity; by Thy baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Thine agony and bloody sweat; by Thy cross and passion; by Thy precious death and burial; by Thy glorious resurrection and ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost, blessed Jesus, wash away all my impurities, and receive me into Thy everlasting kingdom.”
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