With President’s Day coming up (it’s actually called Washington’s Birthday) and in light of recent national events (i.e. election of the POTUS), I decided to delve into the psyche of former Presidents.
Psychology Today published a brief article in 2016 comparing and contrasting the mental state of past presidents. As a matter of fact, according to a Duke University Medical Center study, half of the first thirty-seven presidents represented signs of mental illness—“and 27% met those criteria while in office.”
The most common diagnosis is depression. Presidents James Madison, JQA, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, and Calvin Coolidge were all listed. Also, though unmentioned, Andrew Jackson’s wife died shortly before his second inauguration, leaving him melancholy, driving him into what we would call a type of dysphoria. The second common diagnosis “rang[es] from social phobia to generalized anxiety disorder,” affecting Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Woodrow Wilson. Moreover, the study listed both LBJ and Theodore as showing signs similar to bipolar disorder. And in recent years, Ronald Reagan showed symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s.
(Somewhat fun fact: Woodrow Wilson suffered from a stroke while in office, severely debilitating his cognitive state. As a matter of fact, the 25th Amendment passed, not only to avert a potential Constitutional crisis but in commemoration of President Wilson. To read the amendment, click here.)
The writer notes depression’s prevalence seemed to fade with the advent of “electricity and indoor plumbing.” Coincidence? Additionally, Presidents William Henry Harrison (who is mistakenly believed to have died of pneumonia) and Zachary Taylor contracted illness due to the White House’s poor plumbing system. Could this have been a factor in the mental illness debacle?
Furthermore, several presidents were notorious drinkers. Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Nixon are a few. Others held cocktail parties during Prohibition. However, the drinking, in my opinion, is not the problem but the symptom of something far worse. For example, a couple of months before his inauguration, Franklin Pierce’s son died in a train accident before his eyes. Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln after the rather abrupt ending to the Civil War. Grant quite possibly may have suffered from PTSD. (However, this is pure conjecture since he was an avid drinker before the Civil War.) And Nixon was…well, nobody really understands the “Tricky Dick” quagmire.
It seems several presidents even hated the job. James Buchanan, our 15th President, somberly detested his job after his scandalous lover died. Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd President, was prompted by his family to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather—William Henry Harrison. James A. Garfield, our 20th President, pushed into office by colleagues, stated, “This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the president fever, not even for a day.” William H. Taft aspired to one day be US Supreme Court Chief Justice. And so on.
Overall, the office of president is a mystery. Many loathe the burden. Others, in their own “sick” way, lust for power. Mental illness plagues many globally. One may say, “The President must show merit and cognizance”; however, though this is admirable, it seems farfetched. The illness, despite how worrisome (and rightly so), is a sign of their humanity. Leaders are not high on a pedestal, towering over the commoners. Our democratic republic chooses from within. The people choose who most resembles themselves, and if that someone is, God forbid, mentally ill, it should not surprise anyone.