The founders “worried incessantly” about “irrational actors in a government premised on rationality”


Sarah Swedberg teaches history at Colorado Mesa University.  In her recent post at Nursing Clio she explores the views of the founding fathers on emotional stability and instability.

Here is a taste:

In this country, anxieties about the mental stability or instability of our leaders can be traced back to the earliest years of the republic. The founding generation worried incessantly about the possibility of irrational actors in a government premised on rationality. In opposition to ratification of the Constitution, George Clinton fretted that it would be difficult to guard against the “unbridled ambition of a bad man, or afford security against negligence, cruelty, or any other defect of mind….”

As the United States emerged from the American Revolution, Americans agonized about the possible failure of their experiments in government. The new systems that arose during and after the war emphasized the social compact, linking the individual and government explicitly. As the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution stated: “The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all should be governed by certain laws for the common good.”


In 1789, in the First Congress, as members of the U.S. House of Representatives sought to understand the nature of the checks and balances within their new government, Congressmen debated whether the President should have the power to remove Department heads from office. Insanity played no small part in this debate. Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts asked: “Suppose, sir, a man becomes insane by the visitation of God, and is likely to run our affairs; are the hands of government to be confined from warding off the evil?”

While Sedgwick wanted the President to be able to act quickly, Congressman James Jackson of Georgia disagreed. He took the argument further, stating that it was possible that the President might suffer from “an absolute fit of lunacy,” and continued that “although it was improbable that the majority of both houses of Congress may be in that situation, yet is by no means impossible.”

Read the entire piece here.