All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.
--John Fritz, Engineer, Cambria Iron Works, 19th century Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after working months to build a new machine for steel production
Just in time for the summer reading season -- and as an alternative to vitriolic political rhetoric -- David McCullough, historical author of “1776,” “John Adams” and “The Wright Brothers,” has assembled 15 of his speeches in his latest book, “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.”
Spanning nearly 25 years, McCullough shares insights on clocks, buildings, cities, naturalization ceremonies and even commemorations, weaving each to illustrate the American character and spirit that define us. Through his presentations, he seeks to “remind us … of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled and uncertain times.” In several commencement addresses, he challenges the graduates to better understand our common history as they embark to participate in American life. His stories and character accounts feature common themes of service, courage, education and leadership. He stresses the need for balance between thinking and passion, mathematics and poetry, and the power of words to stretch and elevate both.
Dr. Benjamin Rush
In the commencement address to the Dickinson College graduates of 1998, McCullough recounted the contributions of Dr. Benjamin Rush in chartering the college, championing education, founding the nation, and advancing care and compassion as a physician. A native son, Rush was born to Pennsylvania farmers in 1746, and educated both at Princeton University and Edinburgh, Scotland. In his lifetime, he served in the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, gave Thomas Paine the title “Common Sense” and is credited with reconciling the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He served under Washington in the Continental Army, where he recognized the link between field sanitation and the spread of disease. He established the first free dispensary in America and dedicated his life to care for the poor, especially during the yellow fever epidemic. One of the first to view insanity as an illness, he found kindness and compassion more effective than “punishment and moral lectures.” His writings fill 45 volumes of the Pennsylvania Historical Society library and reflect a multitude of interests and insatiable curiosity.
Above all, Rush championed education and that physicians must teach. He trained over 3,000 physicians and taught his patients long before there was population health. He advocated for better educational opportunities for women. He felt “Freedom can only exist in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights.” In that spirit, Rush became the driving force in establishing Dickinson College, the first in the new nation.
Perhaps one of Rush’s greatest contributions was his belief that “good nature,” including “candor, gentleness and a disposition to speak with civility and to listen with attention to everybody” mattered most. McCullough writes that his goodwill, curiosity and commitment to education transcend time and still drive our country today.
In the summer of 1776, an improbable assembly of extraordinary statesmen during the age of enlightenment reached the radical yet fundamental concept that government derives its power from the consent of the governed. As Jefferson penned the words, personalities like Rush and Franklin brought discordant positions together as shared interests -- the beginning of the great experiment that continues today. An experiment for which the founders pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.” (Now that is hard-wired accountability.)
Add a slice of history to your summer excursions and rediscover the American Spirit. Make sure you have a refill of Dr. Rush’s prescription for Good Nature and spend more time understanding than trying to be understood. Trust that the governed can learn from the past in order to shape the future.
I know of no character living or dead who has done more real good in America.
--John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, upon learning of Dr. Rush’s death in 1813
The American War is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.
Lee M. Duke II, M.D.
Chief Physician Executive
Progress Notes' Editor-in-Chief