Some ideas live well beyond their originators.
This month marks 204 years since the death of Benjamin Rush, the man who first proposed the idea of a Department of Peace in the federal government. Rush ended his journey on the earth on Apr. 19, 1813. Although he’s not talked about as much as the other founding fathers, Rush earned a reputation as a Renaissance man, as he was a psychiatrist, a doctor, an elected official, the founder of Dickenson College, a signee to the Declaration of Independence and a professor of chemistry. In addition, he also made his mark on the world of social reform in opposing slavery, advocating for free public schools, education for women and a more enlightened prison system. Like most of the founding fathers, he feared the emergence of militarism and its consequences for the republic.
Tragedy struck his family at a young age and Rush’s father died in his early childhood. But he went on to graduate from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, at the age of 14 and later apprenticed under a physician, earned a Doctorate in Medicine and started practicing medicine on his own. He later served as a doctor in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Rush is considered the “Father of American Psychiatry,” as he published a book Medical Enquiries and Observations on Diseases of the Mind.” A relative of William Penn (1644-1818), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, Rush published an essay in “A Plan for a Peace-Office of the United States” in 1793. In this essay, he suggested a Peace Department to promote perpetual peace in the United States. He envisioned the department as being on equal footing with the War Department, the forerunner of today’s Department of Defense.
He saw the Department of Peace as an entity that would ensure free schools for children all around the United States. He thought the department would celebrate life and discourage the horror of bloodshed. In addition, he thought militia laws should be repealed. Militias were state based military units that supplemented the regular military in Rush’s time. As the years went by they were increasingly replaced by the National Guard.
The idea that wouldn’t die, a Department of Peace would continue to be discussed throughout the history of our country. In 1925, Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, suggested a Department of Peace at a Cause and Cure for War Conference. Just a year later in 1926, Disciples of Christ Minister Kirby Page, author of “A National Peace Department,” wrote and distributed a pamphlet advocating a Department of Peace.
Activity on the issue continued throughout the next four decades, with Sen. Matthew Neeley (D-WV) introducing legislation (1935) and Sen. Alexander Wiley (R-Wisc.) speaking on the Senate floor about a department (1943). In 1947, Rep. Evert Dirksen (R-Ill.) introduced a bill for a peace division in the State Department. From 1955 to 1968, 85 bills were introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate for a Department of Peace.
In 2001, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced another Department of Peace bill. The bill was reintroduced in each session from 2001 to 2009. The Kucinich bill held national and international dimensions. It included items such as: prison rehabilitation, grants for domestic and gang violence, monitoring military and non-military domestic weapons production, recommendations on diplomacy and mediation, monitoring human rights and the development of educational media to promote non-violence.
Although legislation on establishing a Peace Department always ended in failure, national non-profit organizations such as the Student Peace Alliance and Peace Alliance, two separate organizations that work on their own, advocate a department. The movement lobbies congressional leaders and has sought and received a number of endorsements from city councils.