Julia Stockton Rush painted by Charles  Wilson Peale (1776).
Winterthur Museum
discovery / found

Rediscovering a Founding Mother

Just-discovered letters herald the significance of an unsung Revolutionary woman, Julia Rush.
While researching my new book, Rush: Revolution, Madness & the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father, I managed to track down new and revealing correspondence to, from and about Benjamin, the misunderstood patriot, physician, writer and educator known as the “American Hippocrates.” But one of the biggest surprises was finding unpublished writing by and to Julia. The Rushes’ descendants hid much of the couple’s writing away, partly to shield the unvarnished opinions of Benjamin and his favorite correspondents, Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and partly to protect the career prospects of some of their sons. (Their son Richard served four presidents, as attorney general, secretary of the treasury and U.S. representative to Great Britain and France.)

Julia herself chose to burn many letters because they were “fit for scarcely any eyes.” So she has been known primarily through a “devotional journal” filled with mournful prayers and doleful observations about her husband’s death, which gave the impression that she wasn’t a very interesting writer—or person. But the new correspondence reveals her as a vastly underappreciated Revolutionary woman who had influence and opinions of her own and was very much at the center of events during and after the struggle for independence.

Julia Stockton Rush was born on March 2, 1759, in Princeton, New Jersey, the first of six children of the lawyer Richard Stockton (whose family donated part of the land for the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where he was a trustee) and the Philadelphia-born writer Annis Boudinot Stockton. Like her mother, Julia had porcelain skin, a high forehead, searing dark eyes and a Mona Lisa half-smile. She was well read and a gifted singer, and she grew up with strong female role models, especially her mother, the first female poet published in the United States.

Benjamin Rush began courting Julia in the summer of 1775. He was 29 and a rising physician and patriot in Philadelphia. She was a 16-year-old heiress living on a Princeton estate called Morven. In a courting letter from Benjamin, who was raised by a working single mother, he imagined her role in their marriage: “If the business of a married woman’s life consisted simply in receiving & paying visits—in providing food for a family—or in bringing a number of children into the world, I should pity you in entering so early into matrimony. But I know you have higher objects principally in view.” As an engagement gift, he built her a library in his home and stocked it with the first hundred volumes he hoped she would read and they could discuss.
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