The founding fathers had a general physician. His name? Benjamin Rush. The name sounded familiar, but truth is I knew nothing about him. But after an introduction from Brett McKay and Stephen Fried, I wasn’t surprised to learn he kept a commonplace book.
Brett McKay: Even the founding fathers did it. Something that really… You really hit home. And it really impressed me about Rush. Ever since he was a child, very curious, this self-starter, and something that he did that a lot of young upstarts did back in 17th century, 18th century, is he had a common place book and the guy just wrote down everything. How did that mental habit shape him for the rest of his life?
Stephen Fried: He did. And you know, what’s interesting, I found… I had the same question you had, and then I looked into it and I saw that even then there’s apparently a debate about how memory works. Of course, we’re still debating that, and the debate was, do you take notes and that makes you remember, or do you listen and not take notes, and that makes you remember? Most of Rush’s teachers thought you shouldn’t take notes, but Rush took notes. And so, what’s wonderful was after a certain point, we have them. I mean, a lot of things that Rush wrote are gone, I’m still hoping they will bubble up somewhere, but his commonplace books are wonderful. And part of the value of them is, of course, he did it when he was a kid, he did it when he was a student, and then when he was in the Continental Congress, he kept them about what it was like to be in the Continental Congress.
He would write little sketches about what he thought about the people in the Continental Congress, no holds bar. So he just… He wrote a lot, and so we have a lot of it, and we’re missing a lot of it, but everything we have is… What’s really nice about it also is that he wasn’t a formal writer. So he wrote in a style that we would today think of as almost like magazine writing. And it’s part of the reason that he was such an accessible intellectual and such an accessible writer is because, his writing style and of course, his penmanship were really readable, and when you read them today, they seem quite contemporary.The AOM Podcast #813: The Fascinating Life of America’s Forgotten Founding Father. Brett McKay and Stephen Fried
Listen to the interview in its entirety below: