J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 01, 2012

“This speech procured a transient smile…”

Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) was a Pennsylvania Patriot who lived a long time and seemed to know everyone. He was a member of the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence, Surgeon-General of the main part of the Continental Army for a while, treasurer of the U.S. Mint, and probably the most famous physician of early America.

Rush was an energetic reformer in such causes as anti-slavery and better treatment of the mentally ill. The year before he died, Rush even got John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to write to each other again.

Despite being in the middle of so much action, Rush’s own papers weren’t published for a long time. He drafted an autobiography full of close observations about his fellow Patriots, but it wasn’t published until 1948. Rush’s Letters came out in two volumes in 1951.

And in one of those letters, dated 2 Aug 1811, Rush wrote to Adams:
Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the day on which the vote [for independence] was taken? Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The silence and the gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, only for a moment by Colonel [Benjamin] Harrison of Virginia, who said to Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry at the table: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
When Dr. James Thacher of Plymouth published a version of that anecdote in his Military Journal in 1823, he could have heard it in two ways. Adams could have told him (while probably grumbling about Harrison). Or Thacher could have heard it from Rush himself; he corresponded with the older doctor for decades, and included an admiring 42-page profile of him in his American Medical Biography.

But because Thacher didn’t specify how he was “credibly informed” about the Harrison-Gerry anecdote, generations of authors have set it aside as most likely a later invention, too good to be true. That’s certainly how I first heard it described.

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