Historical essay
Liberty and Insanity Sitting in a Tree

Liberty and Insanity Sitting in a Tree

Sarah Swedberg

In 2011, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar entitled “The Problem of Governance in the Early Republic.” Our group was housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and for three weeks the participants, led by Purdue University professors John L. Larson and Michael A. Morrison, talked and argued about a common core of reading and shared our research with one another.

When I applied for this seminar, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to work on. Since my dissertation days, I had been intrigued by the idea of mental illness in the early American republic, but by the summer seminar I had not yet fully developed my research project. The seminar provided me funding and intellectual support that allowed me to begin reading and expressing the germs of the ideas that would occupy my time for the next nine years.

Benjamin Rush portrait.
Thomas Sully, Benjamin Rush, 1783, National Portrait Gallery (Wikimedia Commons)

I started by reading some of the medical books that Dr. Benjamin Rush had owned, now held in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia. I then read outward, consuming any other 18th- and 19th-century American medical texts I could find. Because our group was particularly focused on the problem of governance in the early United States, the passages in Dr. Johann Spurzheim’s first American edition of Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, or Insanity jumped out at me. Spurzheim hypothesized that there were larger numbers of insane people in England because there, “every thing finds opposition, and opposition naturally excites the feelings.”[1] He wrote that large-scale and oppositional political participation meant increased cerebral function. Increased cerebral function, in turn, was one of the idiopathic, or spontaneous, causes for insanity. In the appendix to this edition, the American doctor Amariah Brigham insisted, “insanity prevails most in those countries where people enjoy civil and religious freedom, where every person has liberty to engage in the strife for the highest honors and stations in society, and where the road to wealth and opportunity is equally open to all.”[2] In other words, liberty caused insanity.

From there, I began to look for instances of Anglo-Americans who, while breaking down their old governments and attempting to build new ones, expressed anxiety over the ways insanity, whether caused by liberty or other factors, could undermine their systems of governance. These instances were remarkably easy to find as Americans wrote their anxieties into speeches, newspaper articles, letters, and diaries. Repeatedly, this generation emphasized that they needed rational actors for the republic to function and survive, and they connected some forms of irrationality to insanity. The job of doctors or other healthcare providers when treating irrational insane people was to restore them to their “birthright as rational beings.”[3]

Dr. Edward Cutbush in 1830s.
Portrait of Edward Cutbush, c. 1835. (Wikimedia Commons)

I began to craft conference papers and sketch out my ideas during summer and other breaks. As I worked on the project, the political world around me changed. The 2016 election of Donald Trump brought increased conversations about irrationality and erratic behavior in ways that echoed words and passages from the past. In the 18th century, doctors believed that irrational and erratic behavior could signal insanity. For example, in his 1794 medical dissertation on insanity, Edward Cutbush defined tonic mania, “the monarch of all mental diseases,” as “a false perception of truth; with conversation and actions contrary to right reason, established maxim, and order.”[4] Likewise, in a February 13, 2017 letter to the New York Times, thirty-five healthcare professionals wrote that individuals with speech and actions like Trump’s “distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them” and stated they did not believe he was fit for office. Of course, in 2017, as in 1794, most Americans are not qualified to make medical diagnoses, but lay diagnoses, with all their potential for error, have long shaped Americans’ concerns about the political world in which they live.

In the four years of the Trump presidency, some Americans behaved in a fashion that would have made men like Dr. Benjamin Rush uneasy. In 1792, Rush worried that the upheavals of war “produced, in many people, opinions and conduct which could not be removed by reason, nor restrained by government.” He determined these opinions and conduct demonstrated “a new species of insanity.” Rush called for political parties to mutually [forgive] each other, and [unite] in plans of general order and happiness.” If that did not happen, the republican experiment might fail. In Rush’s worldview, the Revolution had unleashed democratic elements that were symptoms of madness. For Rush and others, the madness had shown itself particularly in the continued protests against the sitting of courts around the country, culminating in the armed uprising of Massachusetts farmers in what became known as Shays’ Rebellion.

Similarly, in Rush-like fashion, we can argue that Trump’s loss in the 2020 election also led to “opinions and conduct which could not be removed by reason.” Trump refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory and fed into his followers’ conspiracy theories, claiming that the elections were illegitimate despite all evidence to the contrary. Among those who believe Trump’s version of the election is my new Congresswoman, Lauren Boebert. On January 6, 2021, after tweeting, “Today is 1776,” she stood in the House Chamber and claimed, “The members who stand here today and accept the results of this concentrated, coordinated, partisan effort by Democrats – where every fraudulent vote canceled out the vote of an honest American – have sided with the extremist left.” Shortly after she finished speaking, others who believe, like Boebert, that the election was rigged and Trump was the legitimate President-elect, violently stormed the Capitol building, sending Boebert and all her colleagues into hiding.

January 6, 2021 was not 1776, of course, but the actions of the insurrectionists and the deep distrust of political systems voiced by Congresswoman Boebert do have long genealogies. In the era of the American Revolution, Anglo Americans sometimes resorted to horrifying and violent insurrections to make their points. Boebert, however, should have chosen a different date. Perhaps her date should be January 25, 1774, when a mob of men and boys in Boston, with no legal backing, seized John Malcom for being a Tory and tarred and feathered him before dragging him through the streets. Ann Hulton expressed her outrage at this action, writing, “These few instances amongst many serve to shew the abject State of Governm’t & the licentiousness & barbarism of the times.”[5]

Or perhaps Boebert’s date should be August 28, 1777, when the Continental Congress, without any clear evidence of wrongdoing, determined that Quakers were “disaffected to the American cause.” Congress targeted fourteen Quaker men and issued a general warrant. The men were arrested, imprisoned, denied access to the legal system, and then exiled to Virginia.[6] In 1777, Americans, proclaiming themselves the protectors of liberty, denied liberty to those they believed stood in their way.

Book cover Liberty and Insanity
Book cover of Liberty and Insanity. (Rowman & Littlefield)

When I caught the spark of the idea for Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution back in 2011, I did not set out to write a book that mirrored the world around me. When I started writing, however, the interplay between past and present became eerier as the violence or threat of violence I saw in my community and others did mirror some of those events or actions that I detailed. Perhaps, as Spurzheim argued, liberty does cause insanity. After all, self-proclaimed patriots who bristle that regulations for the common good are attacks on their liberty then use their ideology to engage in behavior that seems irrational or even insane to witnesses like me. Self-proclaimed patriots believe that their freedom includes taking the law into their own hands while others of us believe that they are acting outside the bounds of reason, unrestrained by hard-won regulations.

An embrace of unregulated and unrestricted action, including violence against others for political or ideological purposes, what many then and now see as madness, winds its way throughout our history. Americans like Senator Ben Sasse, who claimed in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection that “our kids need to know that this isn’t what America is,” are wrong. Extralegal violence and acts of domestic terror have been part and parcel of the American experiment from the very beginning. Then, as now, many Americans see these violent actions as insanity, but as a people we have never found a cure for atrocities accompanied by calls for liberty. History presents us with example after example that those who choose violence in the wake of political disappointment will always be there.

If liberty causes insanity, what can we as Americans do? The founding generation did not come up with a solution nor have we discovered it in the ensuing generations. The United States has a long history of unfounded conspiracy theories, the rejection of evidence, and the use of violence by its citizens for their own ends. In Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution, I tell some of that history. Writing the book did not help me make sense of the world I live in but did bring increased awareness of threads of violence and insurrection that have risen to the surface or sunk underground depending on the era.


    1. Johann G. Spurzheim, Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, or Insanity, 1st American ed. (March, Capen & Lyon, 1833), 124.
    2. Amariah Brigham in Spurzheim, Observations, 236.
    3. Philippe Pinel, A Treatise On Insanity: In Which Are Contained the Principles of a New And More Practical Nosology of Maniacal Disorders Than Has Yet Been Offered to the Public (Cadell and Davies, 1806), 9.
    4. Edward Cutbush, An Inaugural Dissertation on Insanity (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, Junior, 1794), 14.
    5. Sarah L. Swedberg, Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution (Lexington Books, 2020), 137.
    6. Swedberg, Liberty and Insanity, 97–101.


Featured image caption: Engraving of the eighth print of A Rake’s Progress, depicting inmates at Bedlam Asylum. (Courtesy William Hogarth/Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.