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The Founders Club

Tracing the Philosophical Roots of the U.S. Constitution

Rush vs. Cobbett

Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the greatest humanitarians of his time. He was called the father of American medicine and one of the three greatest founders along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. He signed the Declaration of Independence, started 5 universities, trained 3,000 medical students and made many medical discoveries, some we even use today. He began the First Day Society which initiated the Sunday School movement and founded the Bible Society movement in America. Rush championed abolition, women's rights, public schooling, prison reform, and public sanitation. He criticized his fellow physicians for carelessness, incompetence, and greed. He was a Doctor, a writer, and a philosopher. Rush was intertwined with almost all the founders and those are just a handful of things he accomplished so you can have an idea of who Benjamin Rush was.

William Cobbett was an English pamphleteer and journalist who wrote poorly of Benjamin Rush in his newspaper the PORCUPINE'S GAZETTE. This was nothing new. When Cobbett arrived in the United States he began a monthly periodical called THE POLITICAL CENSOR which he used to attack his political opponents. This would transition into the PORCUPINE'S GAZETTE. He mostly attacked any French support in the colonies. However, this would all end when he attacked the wrong man. In the summer of 1793 Philadelphia was receiving refugees from the yellow fever epidemic in the Caribbean. Within weeks people throughout the city were experiencing symptoms. People were dying left and right. With thousands dead in the city of Philadelphia, it was labeled one of the most severe epidemics in United States history.

Physicians didn’t want to catch the disease so many left. Benjamin Rush made the noble decision to stay and find a treatment for Yellow Fever. He treated around 100 people a day using controversial treatments that included blood letting and mercury laxatives to rid ailing bodies of the disease. He tried to amplify his efforts by working closely with the free black community. Many became nurses helping him in this effort. He wanted to find a universal treatment that anyone could do and would be an easy solution to the problem.

Did this work? No, it didn’t. Many doctors were using different tactics and like most things it became politicized. You had the federalist attacking democratic republican methods and you had democratic republicans attacking federalist methods. The truth was that no one knew what to do and nothing was working. William Cobbett found his opportunity. He wrote..

“The remorseless Dr. Rush shall bleed me till I am white as this paper before I’ll allow that he was doing good to mankind.” He painted rush as a horse leach, a ferret, a pole-cat, and a butcher. He wrote that he had “Slain thousands and will bleed patients to the grave if not stopped.”

That was enough for Rush. Benjamin Rush sued William Cobbett for libel which is a published written false statement that is damaging to a person's reputation. In one of Philadelphia’s most sensational trails, Rush’s lawyers demanded 5,000 dollars in damages which was a lot of money that day. Normally this would be difficult to win. Usually truth was irrelevant in English common law. New York’s British governor in 1734 sued John Peter Zenger for exposing the governor for rigging the election. The jury ruled that the truth of Zenger's chargers were a legal defense against libel, setting a precedent that would be translated into the first amendment.

Years later journalists like William Cobbett would become more daring with the things they wrote in their papers because no one would challenge them...that is until Benjamin Rush. William Cobbett may have stepped too far.

In the trial of Rush v. Cobbett, Cobbett fought for the freedom of press while Rush fought for another freedom. A freedom not stated by the Constitution. He fought for the freedom of scientific inquiry and the freedom of physicians to explore ways to heal the sick. Free from malicious false assaults by ignorant untrained, unscrupulous journalists such as Cobbett.

Amazingly, the jury found Cobbett guilty and awarded Rush 5,000 dollars which he donated to charity. To Rush it wasn’t about the money. It was about keeping his name and integrity intact. In those days honor was everything.

Many felt that this was justified and others did not. Alexander Hamilton who was a Federalist was upset by the juries decision. William Cobbett fled back to Europe with sources saying he escaped before paying the full amount. He would once again be involved with more libel lawsuits there.

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