Are Your People Getting Mad?

“Are your people getting mad?,” George Washington asked Benjamin Lincoln when he heard the news of what was happening in New England in the autumn of 1786. “Many of them appear to be absolutely so,” the Massachusetts general replied, “if an attempt to annihilate our present constitution and dissolve the present government can be considered as evidences of insanity.”[1] By the end of the 1780s, America’s revolutionary elites increasingly resorted to the same explanation. What could possibly explain the conflicts that were starting to tear apart the new republic? How could the same people who fought for the Revolution now have such different ideas about what its outcome should be?

It was no coincidence that the Age of Revolution was also the Age of Reason. As advocates of enlightenment explained, commitment to an idea of reason lay at the root of that epoch’s challenges to the status quo. The theory of revolution suggested by Locke and adopted by America’s republicans gave the people, as a whole, a basic capacity for reason. They had to be able to judge when their rights were being unjustly infringed, when their rulers were becoming tyrants, and when revolution became a legitimate course of action. The first step to justifying revolution was to grant that reason was not the preserve of monarchs and their councilors, but was in fact accessible to all—or rather, to all property-owning white men. The problem was, once reason had been opened up like that, it was going to be rather difficult to go back.

By the middle of the 1780s, this doctrine of popular reason was becoming increasingly inconvenient for the revolutionary elite. With the war’s end, these gentlemen increasingly turned their attention to the workings of the new republican states and their representative assemblies. These assemblies embodied the republican premise of propertied white male rule. But some the policies they were pursuing in the 1780s—namely, those that threatened to disrupt the commercial economy and redistribute wealth from rich to poor—seemed downright unreasonable. “The states are running mad after paper money,” James Madison told his brother in the summer of 1786.[2] That autumn, the floodgates really opened. As William Ellery of Rhode Island put it, “What madness has seized the people of the New England states!”[3]

Pathologising opposition as insanity was more than just a way of insulting radicals and rebels. It was also a way of coping with political conflict—not by understanding it, but by placing it in a category altogether beyond the sphere of political reason. Nobody went further in this endeavour than the physician Benjamin Rush. “The minds of the citizens of the United States were wholly unprepared for their new situation,” Rush wrote at the end of the decade [4]:

The excess of the passion for liberty, inflamed by the successful issue of the war, produced, in many people, opinions and conduct which could not be removed by reason nor restrained by government. For a while, they threatened to render abortive the goodness of heaven to the United States, in delivering them from the evils of slavery and war. The extensive influence which these opinions had upon the understandings, passions and morals of many of the citizens of the United States constituted a species of insanity, which I shall take the liberty of distinguishing by the name of Anarchia.

Perhaps for Rush, diagnosing a large swathe of the population as mad helped maintain the integrity of the revolutionary American public. It meant that all reasonable people thought alike, contributing to a unitary popular will much like Rousseau’s notion of the singular republican polity. This republican unity left no room for pluralism—indeed, Rush hoped to “render the mass of the people more homogenous” through schooling, in order to “fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”[5] Madness, as a technology of power, excluded anyone who threatened that homogeneity.

In the year that preceded the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, this Rousseauvian vision of unity still held considerable sway over American political thought. We can see it even in those, like Madison and Henry Knox, who clearly thought that radicals and rebels were acting from rational self-interest. Knox told Washington that the rebels in Massachusetts sought to remedy their own poverty and extinguish their debts; yet he also called their cause a “formidable rebellion against reason.” Only later, and with Madison’s help, would political pluralism come to seem like common sense. Like the technology of madness, liberal democracy still functions to contain conflict, and to set limits on the revolutionary potential of reason.


[1] George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, November 7, 1786 in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6 vols., ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992-1997), 4: 339; Lincoln to Washington, December 4, 1786, in Ibid., 4: 418-36.

[2] James Madison to Ambrose Madison, August 7, 1786, in The Papers of James Madison, Congressional Series, 17 vols., eds. Robert A. Rutland and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962-1991), 9: 89-90.

[3] William Ellery to Nathaniel Appleton, October 2, 1786, qtd. in Irwin H. Polishook, Rhode Island and the Union, 1774-1795 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 144.

[4] Benjamin Rush, “The Influence of the American Revolution,” in Dagobert D. Runes, ed., The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), 325-33.

[5] Rush, “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” in Frederick Rudolph, ed., Essays on Education in the Early Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 10.

7 responses

  1. I enjoyed this post a great deal. Connecting madness to political conflict is both interesting and productive. For me, it also raises questions about the relationship of political insanity to legal capacity and responsibility. Did Rush et al have any thoughts on such questions?

  2. Great post, Tom. I’d add that using the language of “madness” wasn’t restricted to elite condemnation of popular politics. It’s *all over* the chatter about 1780s and 90s land speculation. (In fact, I use the idea of “land mania” as the opening gimmick of my dissertation.) To cite just one of many examples, a widely reprinted, semi-satirical essay–attributed to Benjamin Rush–listed fully 26 different “species of mania”: the dress mania, the “negro mania,” the ecclesiastical mania, the liberty mania, the duelling mania, etc., etc. Number 2 is the “land mania,” “a frequent disease in every part of America. It broke out with peculiar violence in most of the states immediately after the peace, and has continued to be more or less the epidemic of our country ever since.” The language here is very clearly directed at a wide array of large-scale elite land speculators, including folks like Knox. (And, Prof. Gordon: yes, in this Rush essay, it’s also clear that “mania” connotes irresponsibility and incapacitation, though it’s framed in more of a social than a strictly legal sense.)

    I think the takeaway here is that sometimes the language of madness could indeed be a “technology” of top-down power, but that its uses were more dynamic than simply that. It was also often used between people who saw themselves as equals–as a way to frame the bounds of proper conduct, and, perhaps (but don’t yet quote me on this), as a way to distinguish self-interested behavior from virtuous behavior. All this is to say that the idea of madness packed some real punch in this period and I think we should know more about why. Thanks for drawing our attention to it, Tom!

  3. Thanks for the great comments so far. On the legal question, it’s hard to see this kind of “political insanity” working in the same way as “criminal insanity” as a legal defence. But then, large-scale rebellions like Shays’ have always been more political than legal events, and the punishment of participants reflects that — hence the wide-ranging amnesty for most Shays’ participants. Of course, there must be an intriguing history of insanity and responsibility in a legal context, which I’d love to know more about (Googling doesn’t immediately reveal a full treatment of this — would be an awesome book project).

    Michael, I remember we actually discussed this briefly in the Q&A for your panel at the MHS conference this spring! I think you’re right that this discourse of “mania,” especially in a business context (not just land-mania but all kinds of stock- and bubble-manias), is a way of trying to deal with the complexities of market-based rationality and the potential of (anachronistically) “irrational exuberance.” Perhaps this language actually reveals the extent to which these market practices aren’t purely individual, but are actually deeply communal — markets are made (and broken) by mass behaviour, and even rational actors (however defined) can be pulled down by the weight of others’ actions. The language of madness and mania is a way of trying to, as you say, “frame the bounds of proper conduct” in order, ultimately, to protect particular interests, including the market itself. Thinking about “virtue” in that context would be interesting, and again, I think, reflects the reality that there’s always a community at play, and not just individuals.

    • I thought this link (just noodling around) had some interesting discussion of English criminal insanity constructs. It overlaps our period here. Dan Sickles, most famous as a Union General was the first to get off for temporary insanity (~1859) after he shot Francis Scott Key’s son for sleeping with his wife. It is notable that Sickles that his than forgiving his wife his sometimes noted as being as unforgivable as shooting Key.

  4. Your essay reminds me of one written by Gordon S. Wood called “Interests and Disinterestedness in the making of the Constitution.” You definitely hit on the same content on “the madness of the people” with Rush, Wood says, “Yet, of course, we have all those statements by people in the 1780s…Benjamin Rush even thought that the American people were on the verge of “degenerating into savages or devouring each other like beasts of prey.” (Wood, Gordon S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States, (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 129.) After quoting Rush, Wood compared Rush’s expressions with Washington’s, ” From the high ground we stood upon, from the plain path which invited our footsteps, to be so fallen! so lost! it is really mortifying.” (Wood, 129.) Wood it seems believes that the Federalist goal of creating the Constitution has little to do with the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, but instead of their concern for the madness of the people, “What bothered them, what they meant by the excess of democracy, was something more insidious than mobs, It was something that we today accept as familiar, ordinary, and innocuous, but the Founders did not–good old American popular politics.” (Wood, 131.)

    What are your thoughts comparing your analysis and Woods on a similar topic? Did you consult Wood’s essay on this topic or were you inspired by your own reading of Rush?

    Also, Wood’s essay concentrates on Madison more than anyone. It’s interesting to compare your thoughts on Madison in regards to the subject saying, “Only later, and with Madison’s help, would political pluralism come to seem like common sense,” (Cutterham 6 Aug 2015) and Wood who said, “We have too often mistake Madison for some sort of prophet of a modern interest-group theory of politics…Despite his hardheaded appreciation of the multiplicity of interests in American society, he did not offer America a pluralist conception of politics.” (Wood,149.)

    I’m interested in your thoughts on the comparison of the quotes, do you believe that you see Madison differently than Wood?

    • Thanks for the interesting comment, sorry it took me a while to get back to you. I think your comparison is definitely apt: there’s a lot I think Wood got right (and while I didn’t re-read that essay for my post, I’d say Wood’s work looms large in the back of my mind whenever I write on this stuff). I agree with him (contrary to some more recent scholarship, like the international school of David Hendrickson, Daniel Hulsebosch, et al.) that questions of social status and power, especially the threat of popular power to elite control, were *the* crucial factors in the 1780s political struggles. I think he’s stretching a bit on Madison, though. There’s a reason so many historians and political theorists have read Madison as a prophet of political pluralism.

      The problem here, I think, is that Wood tries to portray all the Federalist framers as essentially backward-looking and reactionary, soon to be overwhelmed by a flood of egalitarianism and capitalism (which in his mind go together). That’s precisely where I break with him. What I argue in my doctoral dissertation (soon, fingers crossed, coming to a bookshop near you…) is that revolutionary gentlemen like Madison and Hamilton were simultaneously obsessed with status and hierarchy, *and* innovative, modern thinkers fully plugged in to the emerging capitalist world: there’s no contradiction between those things.


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