Fried, Stephen. Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father. First paperback edition. New York: B\D\W\Y Broadway Books, 2018.
The principle aim of most history book reviews is to sell books by extolling their strengths and highlighting the insightfulness of the author. Typically, reviews offer a few, muted criticisms, in the areas of thesis, style, and scholarship. Substantial incentives engender this overly positive portrayal of new books. For example, reviewers may give deference to a colleague and do not want to criticize several years of intensive research and composition. Also, reviewers are loath to upset publishers as they may seek a publisher for one of their works. Lastly, newspapers receive considerable advertising revenues from publishing houses and do not want to publish unfavorable reviews, which could anger a profitable customer.
The tendency to overlook major criticisms and issues with a book does a disservice to both discerning readers and those learning the writing craft. Recently, an instructive example of book reviewers misleading the public came to light. In 2018, Stephen Fried published a biography entitled Benjamin Rush – Revolution, Madness and the Visionary Doctor who became a Founding Father. Fried’s work is very timely as the last full-length biography was published in 2004, and considerable new materials and correspondence have surfaced in the intervening years. Flattering reviews appeared in the mainstream press, encouraging readers to purchase his book. These reviews concluded that Fried is an accomplished storyteller and emphasized his approachable style and easy to read prose.[i]
Unfortunately, a deeper look reveals major gaps in Fried’s scholarship, which limits the usefulness of his work as an authoritative source for information on Rush’s life. Historians and students can better learn the history craft by analyzing these research gaps, misinterpretations, and errors. Here are some examples:
- Mis-interpretations – Fried cites a battlefield report by Lt. Col. James Ross as critical to George Washington’s decision making during the Battle of Brandywine (page 215). What he fails to mention is that Washington received earlier and more accurate reports from other sources. Ross’s dispatch turned out to be inaccurate and added to the battlefield confusion.[ii] Further, the addition of the Ross story did not contribute to the story of Benjamin Rush and could have been omitted.
- Overly simplistic, misleading – Fried describes Loyalist and Philadelphian Joseph Galloway as a traitor (page 216). In the Revolutionary Era, the Rebels (or Patriots) were the traitors, and the Loyalists remained committed to the Crown. It is unfair to tarnish Galloway as a traitor as he never swore allegiance to the United States. Loyalists were not traitors but people who preferred to live under British rule.
- Citing speculation as fact – Fried asserts that Galloway leaked the British battle plans to area residents who relayed the information to Lt. Col. James Ross, which allowed him to alert Washington. As an eye witness, he based his report to Washington on a skirmish between his unit of seventy men and the leading elements of the British advance. Ross did not need any leaked information to inform Washington that the British were flanking the Americans. Perhaps, as opposed to leaking valuable plans to the Americans, Galloway’s information could have intentially provided the inaccurate reports of the British attacking route to further mislead the Rebels. This conjecture or Fried’s speculative version does not contribute to any better understanding of Rush and his participation in the battle of Brandywine.[iii]
- Not providing a source – Fried does not provide a source for Ross receiving leaked information from Galloway. In another instance, the author quotes Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates with no source (page 239). While the footnoting style many times is dictated by the publisher, there are numerous instances in the book of missing or imprecise footnotes.
- Not analyzing the veracity of a source – The author cites as fact an entry in Rush’s diary quoting Virginia Governor Patrick Henry (page 122). Embroiled in the controversy around Washington’s leadership, Rush is not an objective source. Any opinions ascribed to Patrick Henry should come his Henry’s writing and not from Rush, who had an ax to grind.
- Re-tells tall tales – Included in Fried’s description of the battle of Monmouth is the legend of Molly Pitcher. This story has long been debunked.[iv] Further, there is no reason to include it, as there is no relationship between the story and the life of Rush. Rush was not even present at the battle of Monmouth. It could have been omitted with no impact on the author’s thesis and storyline.
- Inaccurate conclusions – Fried states that British Gen. William Howe “failed to subdue the ragtag rebel army that the British outnumbered in manpower and firepower. (page 247)” This is not true. Early in the Philadelphia campaign, Washington’s army numbered 17,000 and swelled to almost 30,000 during the campaign.[v] The British brought 18,000 soldiers from New York City to capture Philadelphia.[vi] During the war, the British were chronically short of soldiers. A more accurate assessment would be that the British Army contained more competent soldiers, and were more reliable than the poorly trained Continental Army units and raw militia hastily called up to defend Philadelphia.
- Scholarship errors – On page 226, the name of Rebel Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen is written as “Stevens” which is likely because Fried copied the name directly from Rush’s diary, which contains the mis-spelling. On page 271, Benjamin Franklin’s “son sent a small boat to greet his father” in September 1785. In reality, it was his son-in-law who sent the boat. As a committed Loyalist, Franklin’s son William, was not welcome in Philadelphia. William never set foot back in the United States after he left New York City at the end of the American War of Independence. While all books contain errors, the underlying information associated with these errors is extraneous to Rush’s life story and detract from its importance.
Examining these gaps in scholarship are instructive for historians and writers. While we all make errors, taking the time to remove extraneous materials and to re-check sources and citations are excellent lessons for history and other writing.
In 2018, Harlow Giles Unger published a second, more authoritative biography of Benjamin Rush.[vii] This well-written volume is about one half the length of Fried’s work and does not contain the unnecessary materials and errors cited. Unger’s work is recommended for readers seeking to learn about the fascinating life of Benjamin Rush and his noteworthy contributions to the nation’s founding, medicine, and humanitarian concerns.
For a historographical discussion of the work of Benjamin Rush click here.
[i] Two book review examples focusing on storytelling are the Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/rush-and-dr-benjamin-rush-review-american-hippocrates-1537493843 and the Publishers Weekly https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8041-4006-5. A review in the scholarly Journal of the American Revolution cites undefined errors but generally recommends the book. https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/11/rush-revolution-madness-and-the-visionary-doctor-who-became-a-founding-father/.
[ii] Michael C. Harris, Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle That Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, First edition (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2014), 253.
[iii] Harris, 253–55.
[iv] For information on debunking the legend of Molly Pitcher, see, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/05/molly-pitcher-and-captain-molly/.
[v] Charles H. Lesser, ed., The Sinews of Independence: Monthly Strength Reports of the Continental Army (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 50–53.
[vi] Harris, Brandywine, 57.
[vii] Harlow G. Unger, Dr. Benjamin Rush: The Founding Father Who Healed a Wounded Nation, First Da Capo Press edition (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 2018).