A drawing of two men in 1770s clothing wrestling in a river.

Has the World Gone Mad? An Interview with Sarah Swedberg

Sarah Swedberg is a lifelong activist who engaged in anti-apartheid, AIDS, and anti-war activism in the 1980s and continues to fight for justice for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. She is also a scholar of the early American republic, with a longstanding scholarly interest in the history of mental illness. Her new book, Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution, brings together these interests to show how prevalent concerns about mental illness were to the people of the early American republic, who had fought a brutal and unnerving civil war to create their independent republic. Sarah recovers the fears all kinds of Americans had about whether they had unleashed disastrous conditions on their country that fomented group mental illness. And if revolution had led to mass mental illness, what could be done? Her book is a mesmerizing interpretation of the entire Revolutionary and new republic period that puts the inherent instability of a nation founded on liberty on full display.

Book cover for Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution.
Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution is out now. (Courtesy Rowman and Littlefield)

Rebecca: A good part of the book looks at the tensions between the liberation of the lust for liberty celebrated in the Revolution, and the possibility for individual and group insanity. How were they to know when one or the other won out?

Sarah: In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the more conservative community and national leaders were pretty sure insanity had won out, at least at first. It is a big reason James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others advocated for a less-democratic form of government. To them, democracy was anarchy was insanity. We definitely see this in the reaction to Shays’s Rebellion and also in the Federalist Papers.

On the other side, many ordinary people who embraced more democratic forms of government came to believe that the political elite had exchanged one form of despotism for another. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Jacob Chamberlain characterized the post-war system as “Great ones eating up little ones.”[1]

Rebecca: Is it possible to have revolutionary change without political insanity?

Sarah: Dr. Benjamin Rush certainly did not think so, nor did many of the doctors who witnessed the French Revolution. Rush determined that the American Revolution had created a new disease he called Anarchia, and French doctors detailed cases of morbus democraticus.

Rebecca: How did early Americans understand the difference between good political enthusiasm and unhealthy, mentally suspect political madness?

Sarah: That is an excellent question and I think the answer is: they didn’t. Then, like now, it depended on where your political allegiance lay. If someone else’s politics was different from your own then they were mad. If you shared a belief system then it was righteous passion that embraced liberty.

The website of my newly-elected Congresswoman, Lauren Boebert, includes a quotation that, if it had come 260 years earlier, would have been perfect fodder for my book: “Heading to Congress to Drain the Swamp, stand up for our rights, and tell all the left-wing lunatics that we don’t want more government control. We want our freedom!” Now, as then, we create divisions and dismiss our political opponents by invoking the specter of mental illness. We often believe that those who disagree with us are clearly out of their minds and still use “insane” or “lunatic” to try to make that point.

Rebecca: Your book does a wonderful job of linking all kinds of polarization and political violence, from the Paxton Boys and the Regulators to the Federalists and the anti-Federalists, so that the Boston Tea Party and the Stamp Act are no longer the only examples of threats of Revolutionary violence. What can we learn from looking at such a wide spread of Revolutionary violence?

Sarah: My take-away, and the one that I most emphasize in the classroom, is that there was never a time of consensus, that Americans never agreed with one another about what government should look like and how it could function. Particularly in my upper-division undergraduate courses, I spend a lot of time asking questions and engaging in conversation with students about the use of violence and whether the violence that is part and parcel of our founding should be embraced.

As a country, we have largely erased the unsavory aspects of our founding era to the point where erasing the unsavory aspects got executive-ordered (is that a verb?) into existence with the 1776 Commission. This, also, isn’t new. Some of the early Fourth of July Orations created a social memory of the Revolution in which the only violence was righteous, defensive violence, erasing everything that did not fit into a glorified narrative.

Rebecca: I am so with you on this, especially given how much I have thought about the experiences of American Loyalists. How can we as professors get this across to the next generation of Americans? Have you tried anything that really works to get this point across?

Sarah: I certainly try and I know that nothing works 100% of the time, particularly in the U.S. survey where some of my students are reluctant, sometimes even hostile, to challenging their historical beliefs. I introduce the idea, always, on day one and use the visual of the spectrum, asking students to map out the beliefs they see in the sources along a spectrum. In non-pandemic times, this involves asking students to write on the board or to use sticky notes that they then place on the spectrum. I also spend a lot of time waving my arms around and loudly proclaiming, “There is no such thing as original intent!”

My upper-division students are more willing to engage in these thought exercises and I celebrate the future teachers who talk about how they might incorporate some of the ideas into their lesson plans.

Rebecca: What was your most rewarding archival find, and how did it shape the book?

A photograph of a woman sitting in an armchair reading.
Dr. Sarah Swedberg is Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University. (Courtesy Sarah Swedberg)

Sarah: I have a lot of favorites but probably the one that most made me want to get up on the library table and dance around in a terribly inappropriate fashion were the letters from Henry Strachey to his wife that are housed in the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. Strachey lived in England but spent part of the war in North America as secretary to Lord Richard Howe. In September 1776 he wrote to Jane that “I begin to think it possible, that a whole Country as well as an Individual may be struck with Lunacy.” What a perfect line for my book because it really highlights that generation’s belief that illness had the same effect on the body politic as it did on the body. (I miss being in libraries.)

Rebecca: I also really miss being in libraries and poking around in archives. We scholars get our inspiration from so many sources. In consideration of that, how do you see the relationship between your work for Nursing Clio and your book?

Sarah: Thank you Nursing Clio! (I should note that Jacki Antonovich was an undergraduate student at my institution and watching her rise as an academic star makes my teacher heart happy.) The opportunity to write for Nursing Clio came at a particularly low point in my academic career and I am not sure I would have been able to finish the book project without the blog. I had been worn down by a particular type of academic life that includes heavy teaching loads and an administration that had made it public that an adversarial relationship with faculty is a good relationship. I had lost confidence in my intellectual skills. When I began to publish short-form pieces, I began to believe again that I can think and write. I love writing for them because I could try out some early thinking that led to chapters in my book AND I got to write about other passions as well.

Rebecca: I am sorry to hear about such a low moment in your career, and yet imagine this will be an inspiration to so many historians with some combination of high teaching loads, no research funding, and insecure employment or dispiriting institutions. I really appreciate your insight that to produce the long form scholarship of a book, we need the outlets of short form pieces and the chance to try out other ideas. I find the same thing for my writing as well.

Rebecca: Your work joins medical history with political history and the history of emotions to explain the fraught nature of the American Revolution. Why was that important to you?

Sarah: I think it highlights a way of thinking that has been largely lost. When the Americans that I study wrote or talked about the body politic they believed it functioned in the same way as the physical body. Just like the physical body, the body politic could age, decay, and die. It could be ravished with diseases of the mind or the body. It could be steered by emotion in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Historians write about this, of course, but I think it is worth revisiting and re-examining through the lens of the history of medicine and the history of emotions.

Rebecca: Then and now – how on earth do you govern a country prey to group madness? I imagine a lot of us are thinking about this problem more than ever these days.

Sarah: As a country, the United States has never come up with a solution, as became very obvious with the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The only lesson I’ve been able to glean after nine years of research and writing is to work for change that people like Congresswoman Boebert sees as lunacy in order to provide some protections for the most vulnerable, to engage in the political process to unseat those we see as promulgating group madness, and to hope that we can, once again, survive.

Rebecca: Where is your work going now? Tell us about any new projects!

Sarah: I was surprised that I wrote a book of political history because I had always thought of myself as a social historian. My dissertation was about people. My book was about politics. I want to get back to an abandoned project on what people in the new United States called “depression of spirits” that focuses on lived experience.

  1. Testimony of Eli Allen, 1787, Amory Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

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One Comment

Christina Hoagland

I find it so refreshing to read this discussion. Mindful as it is of societal disapproval and the effect on real sharing of ideas, (when disagreement is couched as clear evidence of mental imbalance) Thank you for the interview!.

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