To the Editor-
Constitution Day is not a holiday. The document that is the foundation of our democracy is certainly worth celebrating, though. I certainly wish more people who claim to celebrate it, actually knew more about it.
But since every conservative fancies themselves a constitutional scholar, we tend to get the kind of grandiose press releases like the recent one by our county executive.
In his proclamation, Mr. Pavelski chooses to interpret the Constitution as some sort of anti-government shield protecting each and every individual’s God-given rights. And so he manages to stitch a bit of anti-public health announcement onto his celebratory statement.
So in the spirit of Constitution Day, let me celebrate one of the lesser known founding fathers. Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Indepence, member of the Philadelphia Sons of Liberty and vocal abolitionist served as a surgeon general during the Revolutionary War.
He is credited with saving the lives of thousands of soldiers, not from wounds (although he did do battlefield surgery) but by convincing General George Washington to require that the Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox.
He continued treating patients after the war in Philadelphia. Backed by his friend Benjamin Franklin, he opened the first free clinic, treating all citizens regardless of their ability to pay.
He also survived no less than three severe epidemics, including a yellow fever epidemic that killed almost ten percent of the population in 1793. Remaining in the city while many doctors fled the pestilence, Rush urged quarantines, and that people “avoid unnecessary intercourse” with people who were infected.
While he was not a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he did attend many of the men who did, holding in depth conversations with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He was a member of the Pennsylvania convention to ratify the constitution, and specifically argued for the removal of any required religious (specifically, Christian) oaths for serving.
“There are many good men who do not believe in the divinity of the Son of God,” he told the conference. “I am not one of that class, but no man whose morals are good should be exempted because he will not take an oath.”
On Constitution Day, let us not forget the words in the Preamble “promote the general welfare.” What does that mean? Does it mean standing by during public health crises? Does it mean favoring individuals over the weakest, sickest and most vulnerable citizens?
I think a Dr. Benjamin Rush, a man of science, had he the tools at hand, and the medical knowledge about the spread of disease, would not have hesitated to use the power of the government to protect public health.