J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Bipolar Disorder as a Factor in the American Revolution?

Instead of porphyria as the explanation for George III’s madness, in the paper I quoted yesterday Timothy Peters pointed to bipolar disorder: a cycle of mania and depression that debilitated the monarch for long, unpredictable stretches in his later life.

Andrew Roberts adopts this conclusion in his new biography of the king. Other scholars might have proposed the same answer as well.

Some might respond that that’s not so much of a diagnosis as a description of the king’s symptoms. Why did his mood shift so drastically? Indeed, part of the appeal of the preceding porphyria diagnosis is that it seems to offer an “explanation” to point to.

Many psychiatrists would counter that even if we don’t know the causal mechanisms of bipolar disorder, it’s a widely recognized condition. About the same fraction of people have it in many different cultures, strongly suggesting that a similar fraction of people had it in the eighteenth century.

Indeed, a number of other prominent figures in the American Revolution showed signs of the disorder. I’m not talking about people whose politics or opinions other people sometimes called “mad,” such as John Adams, but men who went through periods of not being able to function because of depression and other periods of exuberance that got them into trouble.

In Massachusetts, the most prominent example was the early radical leader James Otis, Jr. He suffered several periods of insanity in the 1770s and early 1780s, bad enough that his family bundled him off to houses in the country.

William Tudor, Jr.’s 1823 biography blamed Otis’s coffee-house brawl with John Robinson for those troubles. But John Adams’s diary and other contemporaneous sources from 1769 suggest that Otis’s troubles were already evident by then, and that he actually went into that confrontation during a manic period.

In addition, the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings for May 1858 refers to a letter from Otis’s younger brother, Samuel Allyne Otis, to their father with “evidence of the existence of a tendency to insanity in the younger [James] Otis, which manifested itself at an early period of his life.” Of course, being beaten on the skull didn’t help the man’s mental stability.

Contemporaries also recognized that the Northampton lawyer Joseph Hawley (1723-1788) fell into a debilitating depression around the start of the Revolutionary War. Until then, he had been a strong Whig voice from the western part of the province, sometimes voicing radical arguments in the courts and legislature. Indeed, in the late 1760s his criticism of the Superior Court was so strong it got him disbarred for a time.

In May 1775 Hawley wrote to his colleague Theodore Sedgwick that he felt “very low and melancholy,” complaining of “want of health or memory, weakness of body and Shocking impair of mind.” He declined requests to serve in the Continental Congress and retired entirely in late 1776. In the following years friends would find Hawley confined to his house, biographer E. Francis Brown wrote, sitting in front of his fire and smoking for hours with a “wild and piercing look” in his eyes.

I think another Massachusetts lawyer in the opposite political camp, attorney general Jonathan Sewall, also shows a pattern of manic-depressive behavior. He certainly suffered a severe depression after going into exile during the war. But Sewall’s refusal to participate in the Boston Massacre trials and his uneven output of newspaper essays might be best explained as signs of severely changing moods.

The cases of both Hawley and Sewall offer evidence of how there’s a hereditary aspect to bipolar disorder. Hawley’s father committed suicide, and Sewall’s son was also known to have depressive episodes.

In Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of Charles Lee (2014), Phillip Pappas posits that bipolar disorder is the best explanation of that general’s wild and often self-defeating behavior—the risk-taking that led to his capture in 1776, his choice as a prisoner to offer strategic advice to Gen. William Howe, what looks like an attempt to draw Gen. George Washington into a duel after the battle of Monmouth, and so on.

Assuming these men did have bipolar disorder, did that affect the course of the Revolution? I think it’s conceivable that Otis was a bit manic when he broke with the Crown in the early 1760s and formulated his foundational arguments about the illegitimacy of Parliament’s revenue laws. I’m not saying that political position was crazy, but it was radical enough that Otis might never have had the audacity to stake out that ground otherwise.

1 comment:

adkmilkmaid said...

Severe clinical depression and manic depression (bipolar disorder) are only cousins and should not be confused. If you had ever dealt up close with bipolar disorder, as I have with a friend over decades, you would never confuse them. Though the depressive phase of the latter can resemble severe clinical depression (in both cases the person may be in such a low state of mind they can barely get out of bed) the manic phase is unmistakable and so different from a person's normal behavior that they are generally referred to as crazy. I have always believed that both George III and James Otis had bipolar disorder.

Manic depression/ bipolar disorder is believed to be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. It is often treated today with lithium. One difficulty is that the fizz of early onset mania is exhilarating, and can be addictive. It's very tempting to stop taking the med. Fairly quickly one's judgment is too impaired to regain control.

Clinical depression is a different thing. It can be recurrent and can be very debilitating, but its sufferers do not appear psychotic.