27. The Nutty Benjamin
Benjamin Rush (1746 – 1813) was not one of the more famous Founding Fathers. He was not even the most famous Benjamin in that crowd. However, in his day he was famous enough. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was a politician, doctor, humanitarian, social reformer, educator, and the founder of Dickinson College. In the Revolutionary War, he served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army. Rush was an antislavery activist, and by the standards of his day, he was as liberal as it gets. However, his quest for racial justice took him down some nutty paths. Among other things, he argued that blacks deserved freedom and equality because they were actually white people – just ones with a weird form of leprosy.
Rush figured that black people were whites afflicted with a form of leprosy that darkened their skins, enlarged their lips, and turned their hair woolly. He even coined a term for the illness: “negritude”. As a means to end discrimination, he advocated a cure that would rid blacks of their supposed illness, and transform them back into whites. Rush’s remedy was to “burn away the black” with acids, to remove the dark skin and woolly hair, and reveal the wholesome and healthy whiteness beneath. Rush wanted to help – and it should not be forgotten that he was an implacable foe of slavery and an early advocate of abolition. However, it is a good thing that his nutty “cure” for blackness was not adopted.