Abstract

The role science played in the early abolitionist movement has been almost entirely overlooked. This article demonstrates the ways Benjamin Rush, one of the early republic’s most prominent physicians and leading abolitionists, deployed scientific and medical ideas to advance his vision of a slave-free, white yeoman republic. In 1792 Rush famously argued that blackness was itself the symptom of a disease that slavery only made worse: if slaves were freed and taught proper Christian, republican values, blacks would eventually turn white. Rush also made several other lesser-known medical and scientific arguments that further bolstered his antislavery and political views. Both political and chattel slavery stifled the body’s natural desire for liberty, predisposing both black and white bodies to disease, he argued; in addition, he contended that yeoman farming—rather than slavery—required the ideal amount of physical exertion, which not only kept the body healthy but also created the conditions for responsible republican citizenship. This essay ultimately argues that Rush’s scientific ideas, and not just his scientific stature, added legitimacy to a particular vision of American nationhood that appealed to many white abolitionists in the early republic: the idea that slavery would eventually disappear, as would former slaves themselves.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0895
Print ISSN
1543-4273
Pages
pp. 274-307
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-06
Open Access
No
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