Author Stephen Fried Talks New Book on ‘Lost Founder’

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Stephen Fried
Stephen Fried (Photo by Jim Graham)

Rush by Stephen Fried cover artStephen Fried’s Rush, a biography of Benjamin Rush — doctor, teacher, writer, thinker and signer of one of the few documents that confer that title upon someone — began as a biography of the Liberty Bell.

Five years ago, Fried, the former editor-in-chief of Philadelphia magazine who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, got it in his mind that he wanted to write a book about the American Revolution. There was the fact that he lives “several blocks away from it,” as he put it, but there was also a desire to update what he called his “ninth-grade knowledge” of the particulars.

So he set to work on his Liberty Bell book, researching and writing and proposing and, eventually, coming to a sobering conclusion. He was not going to be able to tell the story he wanted to tell if the Liberty Bell was the central character, for one simple reason.

“Because, as it turns out, the Liberty Bell isn’t a person,” Fried said.

The Liberty Bell project, thankfully, wasn’t mothballed completely — it turned into an article for Smithsonian magazine — and Fried wasn’t ready to give up on the Revolution so easily. The result, Rush, will be released in paperback on Sept. 3, and has already garnered a nomination for one of the most prestigious awards in American biography, the George Washington Prize.

Fried finally arrived at Rush as a subject in a roundabout sort of way. Anyone familiar with his work will know that he’s been at or near the forefront of American reporting on mental illness and the way in which it is treated and discussed for decades.

Rush, to Fried’s knowledge, was often considered the founding father of American mental health care and medicine. But that was about the extent of what he knew. In his office, he had long ago hung a tote bag bearing Rush’s likeness, picked up from an American Psychological Association meeting years before.

The more research he did, aided by some trusted Penn students, and the more that he learned about Rush, the more it seemed that he was a character through which Fried could tell the story he wanted to tell — about the vigorous debate and high ideals of the founders. This “lost founder,” as Fried began to see him, was either at the center or in the immediate vicinity of the events and discussions that launched America from idea to reality.

So Fried set out to write a book that didn’t give short shrift to Rush or the Revolution; the former, he found, was often discussed only in the context of his relationships to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Rush’s professional resume is too long to recount here, but the crux of his collected writings are perhaps a better indication of who he was, anyway.

What Fried found was that Rush’s diagnoses of the problems that America faced and would continue to face were far more perceptive than they had previously been given credit for and, moreover, that some of his most important projects seem downright contemporary in their philosophical underpinnings.

It was Rush, Fried writes, that disputed the idea that racism was something that could simply be legislated out of American life, something that bourgeoisie professionals who created America seemed to believe. Prejudices, racial, religious or otherwise, he believed, were bone deep, and the law would only be a piece of countering them.

And it was more than talk. He helped to found the first free black church in the city, and spoke out in favor of true religious freedom, Fried noted; not just tolerance of different sects of Christianity, but of all religions.

Rush’s writings on Jews, Fried found, are some of the earliest accounts of Jewish life and practice in American history. He found a letter from Rush to his wife about a wedding at Congregation Mikveh Israel, noting the curious practice of breaking glass under one’s foot and, oddity of oddities, all that talking during the prayers. Rush was so fascinated by the Jewish view of the world and the Old Testament that he once even called himself a “Jew of unbelief.”

But what was most important, Fried believes, is that Rush saw the experiences of Jews in America — just as he saw the experiences of black people, free or not, and of women, and of people with mental illness — as central to the story of America, at a time when many did not share that view.

“His writing continued to be contemporary because he was wrestling with these basic issues of America and basically suggesting that America would always wrestle with them,” Fried said. “We always think whenever problems come up that we invented them, and it’s kind of cool to look at the Founding Fathers and look at how they were worried that they broke America.”

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