“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.” 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. 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!”
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 :
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.” 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.