Who’s THAT guy?

Who’s THAT guy? November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, there was a man named Dr. Benjamin Rush.  Never heard of him?  Not surprising, even though he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and helped ratify the Constitution of the United States.  He was beloved in his time, spent much of his medical career helping the poor, was an advocate for abolition of both slavery and the death penalty, supporter of education for boys AND girls, and while serving as a doctor in the Continental army, criticized and called for the removal of George Washington as head of the army.  (p.s.  That last was a bad career move.)

Anywho, he was also very close friends with a couple of guys who were a little more famous – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Adams and Jefferson were compadres during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, their time in France as ambassadors, and remained close until the presidential election of 1800.  Jefferson’s narrow defeat of Adams and their political differences left them bitterly estranged for years.

Nine years later, Dr. Rush had a dream.  In it, both Adams and Jefferson had retired, began corresponding and renewed their old friendship.  Excited and moved by the dream, as he was deeply bothered by their estrangement, he wrote to Adams and Jefferson each to describe it.  Adams and Jefferson received the letters from their mutual friend with open hearts and minds, began a tentative correspondence with one another, (it so happens, this was on my birth day and month – May 27th – emerald’s my birthstone, and I love jewelry, in case any of you are so inclined) and with the benefit of hindsight and wisdom to guide them, they became closer than ever.

Eerily, another part of Dr. Rush’s dream came true.  Rush dreamed that Adams and Jefferson “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”   John Adams and Thomas Jefferson indeed died within hours of one another, on July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day after signing the Declaration of Independence.  Adams even died with Thomas Jefferson’s name on his lips.

I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Rush did his country a great service by helping these two living legends reconcile.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote volumes of letters to one another as a result (also a great birthday gift…from which I’m sure we could all learn a lot.

In January 1787, Benjamin Rush delivered an address to the American People at the American Museum in Philadelphia.  In it he pointed out what he believed was the misinterpretation of two words which he wanted to correct.  The first was regarding the word “sovereignty.”

“It is often said, that “the sovereign and all other power is seated in the people.” This idea is unhappily expressed. It should be—”all the power is derived from the people.” They possess it only on the days of their elections. After this, it is the property of their rulers, nor can they exercise or resume it, unless it is abused. It is of importance to circulate this idea, as it leads to order and good government.

The people of America have mistaken the meaning of the word sovereignty: hence each state pretends to be sovereign. In Europe, it is applied only to those states which possess the power of making war and peace—of forming treaties, and the like. As this power belongs only to congress, they are the only sovereign power in the united states.”

The second was regarding the word “independent.”

“We commit a similar mistake in our ideas of the word independent. No individual state, as such, has any claim to independence. She is independent only in a union with her sister states in congress.”

“”All the power is derived FROM the people.”  They possess it only on the DAYS OF THEIR ELECTIONS.”  (capitals mine.) Individual states are “independent ONLY IN A UNION WITH HER SISTER STATES in congress.”  (capitals mine.)

Dr. Benjamin Rush held many views with which I disagree.  Yet, I am grateful for and respect the common thread he wove throughout his life and through his legacy.  Bitter political enemies can reconcile and be friends.  The country would be better for that.  States can only be independent if they are working as a union with their fellow states in Congress.  The country would be better for that, too.  And if you need me to connect the dots between these lessons and recent events and behaviors of our leaders in times of crisis (I’m looking at you, President Obama and Governor Christie,) let me know.   I’m happy to help.

And please, don’t forget to vote.

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