The United States Needs a Department of Peace

by Bill Benzon

The idea has been around since 1793 when Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote an essay “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States.” Rush was a Philadelphia physician, the founder of Dickinson College, the father of American psychiatry, an abolitionist, he served in the Continental Congress, and he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Banneker published the essay in the 1793 edition of his well-known almanac and then later in a collection of Rush’s essays. It is an interesting and curious document, which I reproduce in full below.

Benjamin Rush Painting by Peale.jpg
Benjamin Rush Painting by Peale” by Charles Willson PealeUnknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Rush imagines that the department would be able to transact its business in a single large room “adjoining the federal hall”. The world was much smaller then than it is now and so a larger portion of that world’s business could be encompassed within a single room. Rush is quite particular about the appointments of this room, suggesting that it house “a collection of ploughshares and pruning-hooks made out of swords and spears”.

The allusion is Biblical of course (Isaiah 2:3-4). Rush also directed that each family in the country be provided with a Bible at government expense. We are still in dire need of moral guidance, though it is by no means obvious that the Bible is the best source of it. What would Rush think of the Dalai Lama or of Pope Francis?

Rush also specifies that the walls of this office have large allegorical paintings on them. Thus the room itself is designed to inspire its inhabitants in their work. One of these paintings is to depict “an Indian boiling his venison in the same pot with a citizen of Kentucky”. I wonder if Rush had any sense that war with the Indians would continue for a century – the Wounded Knee Massacre was in 1890 – and that relations between them and their conquerors would remain fraught to this day?

Another painting was to depict “Lord Cornwallis and Tippoo Saib, under the shade of a sycamore-tree in the East Indies, drinking Madeira wine together out of the same decanter.” That of course depicts the British in India, who ruled there until 1947, when India became independent and partitioned into two states, India and Pakistan. The Tipu Sultan ruled the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India and was a Muslim ruler in a Hindu land. If Cornwallis and the Sultan had been able to make peace, well, what then? It was only a painting – and not even one that had been executed – but the allegorical extension of its subject identifies what remains a vexatious knot of conflicts. If India can make its democracy work, that will be glorious. But what of the spiraling toxicity of the dance between death drones from the skies and Islamic extremism?

And then there’s the painting depicting “a group of French and Austrian soldiers dancing arm and arm, under a bower erected in the neighborhood of Mons.” The Wikipedia informs us “the Battle of Mons was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War.” And that particular conflict, the French, the Germans, and the British, just got worse in the middle of the century, where it sucked half the world into a maelstrom of violence.

Which is to say that in the subjects he chose for these three paintings Rush identified knots socio-cultural violence that remain with us to this day. We’re not talking about violence in the abstract, but violence in specific historical situations that have not damped out but have simply changed shape and form. A fourth painting was to depict “a St. Domingo planter, a man of color, and a native of Africa, legislating together in the same colonial assembly.” Santo Domingo is still in trouble, trouble rooted in its colonial past.

Rush would no doubt have been pleased that men and women “of color” eventually came to legislative power in America and that a black man has become President. The situation of Africa, however, is a mess, some of it a legacy of colonialism, some the result of current exploitation by powerful interests both East and West, and most of resting squarely in the laps of who have to figure out how to survive and thrive in the world they’ve got.

As, indeed, must all of us.

But there was more to Rush’s vision for the office. He also wanted the workers to be inspired by music sung by “young ladies, clad in white robes” who would “sing odes, and hymns, and anthems in praise of the blessings of peace.” This was to be daily.

I have two reactions to this. On the one hand I think of videos I’ve seen of Japanese workers doing calisthenics on the job; it’s healthy and builds team spirit. I also think of 1985’s We Are the World:

It’s anyone’s guess what Rush would think of that music, but I can’t help but thinking that a dialectical synthesis of that with daily calisthenics would be good for anyone’s soul.

There’s more to Rush’s proposal than these “symbolic” gestures. But the symbolism is important, even central. For in this way Rush recognizes that the job of a Department of Peace is to change peoples’ hearts and minds and, as such, the job must start with the hearts and minds of the people who undertake the job. And it is something that cannot be done once an for all. On the contrary, it must be done day by day, one day at a time, unremittingly.

We must change the culture in which we live. That, as the cliché has it, is easier said than done. With climate change upon us, can we afford to waste so many resources and capacities on war? Dr. Benjamin Rush was not facing environmental catastrophe, and he had no knowledge of weapons with the power to devastate the earth’s surface. But he saw the wisdom of peace.

Do we? Can we? Will We?

* * * * *

Here is the full text of Rush’s essay, as published in his collection, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd Edition. Thomas and William Bradford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1806. pp. 183-188.

* * *

A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States

Among the defects which have been pointed out in the federal constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

It is to be hoped that no objection will be made in the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in the time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace Office should be established in the time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government; let him be a genuine republican and sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.

II. Let a power be given to this Secretary to establish and maintain free-schools in every city, village, and township of the United States; and let him be made responsible for the talents, principles, and morals of all his schoolmasters. Let the youth of our country be carefully instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, and in the doctrines of a religion of some kind: the Christian religion should be preferred to all others; for it belongs to this religion exclusively to teach us not only to cultivate peace with men, but to forgive, nay ore–to love our very enemies. It belongs to it further to teach us that the Supreme Being alone possesses a power to take away human life, and that we rebel against his laws, whenever we undertake to execute death in any way whatever upon any of his creatures.

III. Let every family in the United States be furnished at the public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with a copy of an American edition of the BIBLE. This measure has become the more necessary in our country, since the banishment of the bible, as a school-book, from most of the schools in the United States. Unless the price of this book be paid for by the public, there is reason to fear that in a few years it will be met with only in courts of justice or in magistrates’ offices; and should the absurd mode of establishing truth by kissing this sacred book fall into disuse, it may probably, in the course of the next generation, be seen only as a curiosity on a shelf in a public museum.

IV. Let the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the doors of every State and Court house in the United States.

THE SON OF MAN CAME INTO THE WORLD, NOT TO DESTROY MEN’S LIVES, BUT TO SAVE THEM.

V. To inspire a veneration for human life, and an horror at the shedding of human blood, let all those laws be repealed which authorize juries, judges, sheriffs, or hangmen to assume the resentments of individuals and to commit murder in cold blood in any case whatever. Until this reformation in our code of penal jurisprudence takes place, it will be in vain to attempt to introduce universal and perpetual peace in our country.

VI. To subdue the passion for war, which education, added to human depravity, have made universal, a familiarity with the instruments of death, as well as all military shows, should be carefully avoided. For which reason, militia laws should every where be repealed, and military dresses and military titles should be laid aside: reviews tend to lessen the horrors of a battle by connecting them with the charms of order; militia laws generate idleness and vice, and thereby produce the wars they are said to prevent; military dresses fascinate the minds of young men, and lead them from serious and useful professions; were there no uniforms, there would probably be no armies; lastly, military titles feed vanity, and keep up ideas in the mind which lessen a sense of the folly and miseries of war.

VII. In the last place, let a large room, adjoining the federal hall, be appropriated for transacting the business and preserving all the records of this office. Over the door of this room let there be a sign, on which the figures of a LAMB, a DOVE, and an OLIVE BRANCH should be painted, together with the following inscriptions in letters of gold:

PEACE ON EARTH–GOOD-WILL TO MAN.

AH! WHY WILL MEN FORGET THAT THEY ARE BRETHREN?

Within this apartment let there be a collection of ploughshares and pruning-hooks made out of swords and spears; and on each of the walls of the apartment, the following pictures as large as the life:

1. A lion eating straw with an ox, and an adder playing upon the lips of a child.

2. An Indian boiling his venison in the same pot with a citizen of Kentucky.

3. Lord Cornwallis and Tippoo Saib, under the shade of a sycamore-tree in the East Indies, drinking Madeira wine together out of the same decanter.

4. A group of French and Austrian soldiers dancing arm and arm, under a bower erected in the neighborhood of Mons.

5. A St. Domingo planter, a man of color, and a native of Africa, legislating together in the same colonial assembly.

[At the time of writing this, there existed wars between the United States and the American Indians, between the British nation and Tippo Saib, between the planters of St. Domingo and their African slaves, and between the French nation and the emperor of Germany.]

To complete the entertainment of this delightful apartment, let a group of young ladies, clad in white robes, assemble everyday at a certain hour, in a gallery to be erected for the purpose, and sing odes, and hymns, and anthems in praise of the blessings of peace.

One of the these songs should consist of the following lines:

Peace o’re the world her olive wand extends, And white-rob’d innocence from heaven descends; All crimes shall cease, and ancient frauds shall sail, Returning justice lifts aloft her scale.

In order more deeply to affect the minds of the citizens of the United States with the blessings of peace, by contrasting them with the evils of war, let the following inscriptions be painted upon the sign, which is placed over the door of the War Office.

1. An office for butchering the human species. 2. A Widow and Orphan making office. 3. A broken bone making office. 4. A Wooden leg making office. 5. An office for creating public and private vices. 6. An office for creating public debt. 7. An office for creating speculators, stock Jobbers, and Bankrupts. 8. An office for creating famine. 9. An office for creating pestilential diseases. 10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.

In the lobby of this office let there be painted representations of all the common military instruments of death, also human skulls, broken bones, unburied and putrifying dead bodies, hospitals crowded with sick and wounded Soldiers, villages on fire, others in besieged towns eating the flesh of their children, ships sinking in the oceans, rivers dyed in blood, and extensive plains without a tree or fence, or any other object, but the ruins of deserted farm houses.

Above this group of woeful figures,–let the following words be inserted, in red characters to represent human blood,

“NATIONAL GLORY.”

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