What did America’s Founding Fathers Know about Mental Illness?

Beyond the fireworks and grilled burgers, July 4th is a day to celebrate America’s Founding Fathers. We all know that they were an exceptional bunch who led the War of Independence from Great Britain and drafted the Declaration of Independence among other things.

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But what did they know and do and experience in terms of mental illness in their lifetimes? Some highlights from what I learned about some of the most famous of America’s Founding Fathers:


John Adams. Founding Father, first vice president and second president of the United States, John Adams is thought to have suffered from depression and anxiety, and perhaps mania, too. His diaries recount bouts of “great anxiety and distress.” Stories about him while studying law and while serving in public office describe a history of “irrational behavior and emotional instability,” suggesting that he had what would be diagnosed today as Bipolar II Disorder, a disorder marked by depressions and periods of low-level mania.


Patrick Henry. “Give me liberty or give me death.” That’s about all most of us know about this Founding Father from Virginia. But like many of us, he was someone who had a loved one with serious mental illness. Records indicate that Henry’s wife Sarah Shelton Henry developed what appears to be post-partum depression following the birth of their last son. Despite the professional recommendations, Henry refused to institutionalize his wife and instead arranged to care for her at home. We don’t know if this decision was driven by love for his wife or concern for his reputation and political ambition. Like many people with serious mental illness. Sarah died at a relatively young age, perhaps by suicide.


Benjamin Franklin. There’s no indication that Benjamin Franklin had any notable mental illness, but he did have all kinds of ideas about mental health and wellbeing, including his proverbial teaching promoting good sleep hygiene: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Franklin is also responsible, along with his friend, Dr. Thomas Bond, for establishing the first public hospital in the United States. Founded in 1751, the Pennsylvania Hospital’s mission was to serve individuals with mental illness and provide medical care to poor citizens who could not afford private care.


The Other Benjamin from Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a civic leader, physician, politician, and educator – also from Philadelphia. He is considered the father of American Psychiatry. Rush served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army and was the first American to study mental disorders in a systematic and scientific (for the time) way. His practice of psychiatry consisted of bleeding, purging, and the use of the tranquilizer chair and gyrator (that’s what I mean by scientific for the time). I cringe when I read about these treatments – both because the history is troubling and because I am sure that 250 years hence, some of our state of the art practices will similarly cause many to cringe.


George Washington. A popular fictionalized television drama portrayed George Washington having an episode of melancholic depression at Valley Forge. However, this was an exercise of artistic license and historical documents provide no evidence at all that George Washington was dealing any kind of mental illness then or at any other time in his life. He did apparently have many other maladies, including malaria and chronic pain, both of which can increase risk for depression and anxiety, but it appears Washington is a case study of resilience and was spared such psychiatric co-morbidities.

John, Patrick, Benjamin, Benjamin, and George – these American Founding Fathers are like other communities. No matter when or where – some suffer with mental illness, some don’t. Everyone knows someone with mental illness – sometimes our friends and co-workers, sometimes our family members. And with every generation, we have the opportunity to improve care based on ever-evolving science. In it together.

Happy 4th of July!

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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