John Adams: Mental Instability

"Historians have long believed that John Adams was given at times to irrational behavior that could only be attributed to emotional instability" 1. Labels such as "manic-depressive," "slightly paranoid," and "a man consumed by an irrepressible urge to master the world" have been applied to Adams SEE BELOW 1a. Both he and his mother had quick tempers and labile moods, able to move from the highest spirits to the deepest despondency. Adams could be meek or rash, cautious or explosive 2a. Further musings on this topic will be left to psychiatrists.
Ferling and Braverman 1 note that several of Adams' contemporaries also concluded he was unstable:
  • James McHenry (Secretary of War)
    Called Adams "actually insane."
  • Theodore Sedgwick (Senator from Massachusetts)
    Said the President "had his passions" that were derived from a "half-frantic mind."
  • Benjamin Franklin
    Told Congress that Adams "is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things [he is] absolutely out of his senses."
  • Alexander Hamilton
    Publicly denounced Adams in 1800, claiming that Adams had "certain fixed points of character [that] deprive him of self command and produce very outrageous behaviour."
  • Thomas Jefferson
    Quoted rumors circulating in the capital in 1799 that Adams was prone to lose control and given to "dashing and trampling his wig on the floor."
It should be noted that several of these men were political rivals of Adams, which may have colored their opinions.
Cited Sources
  1. Ferling, John; Braverman, Lewis E. John Adams's health reconsidered. William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series. 1998;LV(1):83-104.
    a  p.84

    Comment: Thanks to Shawn Pirelli for this reference.

  2. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.11

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

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