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They’re behind you….. 

You don’t have to be mad to be President of the United States, but it seems to help.  So far in many of these posts we have noted the fact that the Presidents are drawn from a very small pool of the population, and that this  is undemocratic, however a study – albeit a little dated – suggests that it might actually be dangerous.

It has always been noted anecdotally by historians that certain Presidents suffered from clear problems whilst in office.  Lincoln was noted as being depressed and Ronnie Reagan may well have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s whilst still in office.

In an article for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease[i] which can be found in abstract here (the full one you’ll have to pay for) Drs Jonathan Davidson, Kathryn Connor and Martin Swartz conducted a systematic review of the 37 Presidents from 1776 to 1974.

They found an astounding 49% showed signs of full blown psychiatric disorder.  That’s near enough half of all the Presidents.  10% showed these disabilities whilst in office.

Abraham Lincoln was clearly depressive during the years of the Civil War, wandering the White House alone at night, fearful that he would lose his mind as utterly as his wife had.  Even as a young man, contemporaries had feared he might take his life when under strain.

Franklin Piece added to his spectacular alcoholism by being both depressed and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Ulysses S Grant astonished those who knew him when he became President as they felt his alcoholism was so appalling he wasn’t fit to hold down any job far less that of President.  Added to this, although he was a general he was phobic and had a debilitating fear of blood.

Madison, Rutherford Hayes and Woodrow Wilson all suffered mentally as young men.

Coolidge was a hypochondriac, who also had a social phobia, doubtless contributing to his reputation as a poor dinner guest and raconteur.  Silent Cal was never destined for the charity dinner circuit.

Jefferson, who may well have been a high functioning Asperger’s sufferer, could not abide meeting people.

Theodore Roosevelt, whose enthusiasms led a British Ambassador to describe him as “an interesting mix of St Vitus and St Paul”, was manic to the point of being bi-polar.  As, indeed, was Lyndon Johnson.

Nixon’s alcohol abuse “was pretty remarkable and alarming given the authority he had”.  A paranoid who was genuinely being got at by everyone.

Now we know from these posts, and the blog, that many of these Presidents were related.  27 of the 43 (43 because Grover Cleveland served twice in two non sequential administrations) are related by blood and marriage. 

It is clear that the researchers were not aware of these genealogical links which make these Presidents less a random selection from the politically interested, and more a sub-set of a class of oligarchical nobles.  Had they done so would their conclusions have been as sanguine?  I wonder if in the light of this genealogical insight they would be prepared to analyse their data with this in mind?

The question must be asked.  Is it wise in troubled times to continually select men who hold the level of power that a modern President has, from a group of oligarchical families who can be shown to be susceptible to a high rate of mental illness?

[i] Mental Illness in US Presidents between 1776 -1974 by Drs Jonathan R Davidson MD, Kathryn Connor MD, Martin Swartz MD published in Nervous and Mental Disease 194(1):47-51 January 2006.

Copyright David Macadam 2010