Doctor Riker’s decision

Julie Gianakon, BA
Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

 The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776 by John Trumbull
The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776
John Trumbull, 1756-1843
Yale University Art Gallery

On the frigid Christmas night of 1776, Dr. John Riker was alarmed by the baying of dogs outside his New Jersey home. He went out into the darkness and discovered that the cause of the commotion was a regiment of armed men. Assuming they belonged to the British army, he angrily ordered them away. In fact, Dr. Riker had confronted the Virginia infantry under the command of eighteen-year-old lieutenant James Monroe, who was following General Washington’s orders to cut off communication between Trenton and the surrounding countryside and to “make prisoners of all going in or coming out of the town.” Monroe later recollected of Riker, “He was very violent and determined in his manner, and very profane and wanted to know what we were doing there on such a stormy night.” Monroe warned the stranger that he would be arrested if he did not go back inside and keep silent, but Riker soon realized his mistake and altered his demeanor. Now, he was determined to do all he could to aid their cause. After bringing the men food, Riker volunteered to join them. Perceiving the importance of their mission, Riker declared, “I know something is to be done, and I’m going with you. I’m a doctor, and I may be of help to some poor fellow.”1 Fortunately for the young nation, his offer was accepted.

The most prominent “poor fellow” Riker helped in the ensuing Battle of Trenton was Lieutenant Monroe himself, the future fifth president of the United States. A Hessian musket ball struck Monroe’s shoulder and severed an artery. Dr. Riker clamped it just in time to save his life.2 John Trumbull’s painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton celebrates Washington’s desperately needed victory after his army had suffered several bitter months of continuous defeat. Behind the outstretched hand of the conquered Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall lies the wounded Monroe, supported by Dr. Riker.3

Had Riker’s dogs stayed quiet that December night, there may have been no doctor present to help Monroe or the others wounded at Trenton. The chance encounter of the spontaneous, strongly opinionated physician and the paltry American column reflected at once the disorganization and the passionate ideology of the Revolutionary undertaking. Riker’s activities in support of the American cause did not begin or end there. A member of a prominent family, Riker was educated at Princeton (at that time, the College of New Jersey). One of his relatives later wrote in a family history that “before hostilities began,” Riker had “exerted himself to promote the measures of resistance to British tyranny.” After Trenton he remained with Washington and was commissioned as a surgeon of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey troops in February of 1777.4 According to Benjamin Franklin Thompson’s 1839 History of Long Island, Riker had enlisted as a surgeon in the American army in 1775, and “proved of the most essential service, as well for his perfect knowledge of the country, as for his excellent advice on several important occasions.”5 When peace was established in 1783, Riker settled in Long Island, where he practiced medicine for the remainder of his life. He died in 1794 at the age of 57. In his History, Thompson eulogized, “Some such men there are . . . who, with only good talents, virtue, and honor for their portion, are so intimately associated with the times and events in which they live, as to become an essential and interesting portion of their history. Of this class of men was Dr. John B. Riker.”

These accounts from the post-Revolutionary generation indicate that Riker was as deeply involved in politics as he was in medicine. He had this in common with more prominent physicians of the era, such as Dr. Joseph Warren, who died at Bunker Hill after years of serving on many provincial committees and twice delivering the annual oration commemorating the Boston Massacre. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a surgeon general in the Continental Army, suggested the name for Thomas Paine’s sensational pamphlet Common Sense and had a critical role in its publication.6 He was one of five doctors who signed the Declaration of Independence.7 Meanwhile, the traitorous Dr. Benjamin Church served as chief of all American military hospitals while secretly corresponding with the British General Thomas Gage.8

Though Dr. Riker’s specific activities in the political realm are more obscure, his involvement exemplifies the role of many physicians during the Revolution. Doctors were a significant portion of the most educated population, and their profession frequently put them into contact with prominent political leaders as well as the ordinary men and women whose lives were altered by their decisions. Simultaneous political involvement and medical practice are a rare combination in our times, but for Dr. Riker and his contemporaries, these were the right prescription for a new country.

Notes

  1. Dwyer, William. The Day is Ours! (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 255.
  2. Fischer, David. Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 247.
  3. Fischer, 256.
  4. Riker, James. A Brief History of the Riker Family from their First Emigration to this Country in the Year 1638 to the Present Time (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1851), 16.
  5. Thompson, Benjamin History of Long Island (New York: E. French, 1839), 427-428.
  6. Booth, C. C. “Three Doctors and the American Revolution,” The Lancet, 290.7511 (1967): 361-363.
  7. Goldstein, Jacob. “Strong Medicine: Doctors who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2008, accessed November 30, 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2008/07/03/strong-medicine-doctors-who-signed-the-declaration-of-independence.
  8. Lancaster, Bruce. History of the American Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 109, 111.

JULIE GIANAKON received a BA in Classics from Princeton University in 2011. She will be starting medical school at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, PA this year.