Washington, Lincoln and “The Mad King”

FEB. 17, 2017

By Bob Carolla


Does mental illness give strength and insight? Is the effect different from other illnesses? It’s a timely topic as Presidents’ Day approaches, honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln’s experience with depression is well-documented (the best book on the topic is Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Shenk). It gave him the ability to see beyond the terrible bloodshed of the Civil War to a future of recovery for the nation. 

In 2015, the AMC cable channel produced “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” a “historical drama” (i.e., historical fiction) that portrayed Washington having “a mental breakdown” during the winter of 1777-78 when his troops were camped at Valley Forge—with over 2,000 dying of exposure or disease. The portrayal included hallucinations and ravings. Historians soundly rebutted the AMC portrayal—no evidence exists to support it. 

However, Washington battled diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and malaria throughout his life. In “The Health of the President: George Washington,” published in HealthGuidance.org, Dr. Rudolph Marx points out that illness and disability can help shape courage and determination. In this respect, a kind of “parity” exists between Washington’s physical illnesses and Lincoln’s mental illness. In both cases, challenges to their health helped produce the strength and insight to persevere and become two of the greatest—if not the greatest—leaders in American history. 

A King with Bipolar Disorder  

The recent release of archival documents of Great Britain’s King George III—who lost the American colonies to Washington’s leadership—provides additional perspective to this topic. 

King George III ruled for 60 years off and on. After the loss of the American colonies, his mind and abilities began to deteriorate—not all at once, but in recurring fashion. Historically, he has been tagged with the stigmatizing title of “The Mad King.” Today, historians believe he lived with bipolar disorder, which appeared after the American revolution. Loss of the colonies may very well have been the “trigger” for onset of his condition. 

Recently, Queen Elizabeth released more than 30,000 documents about King George III from the royal archives (Many more are still to come). People magazine reported that they show a worsening of his handwriting over time; doctors can also identify descriptions of manic behavior. Ultimately, his illness took over permanently—he went into seclusion to Windsor Castle while his son, the Prince of Wales, took over his duties. 

During periods of recovery, King George III was nonetheless popular with the people. Like Lincoln, his personal experience with mental illness may have deepened his insight and compassion. People applauded when in 1786 and 1790, he showed mercy to a woman and man (respectively) who, experiencing delusions, attempted to assassinate him. Instead of being put to death or imprisoned for treason, they were committed to an asylum. As a result, Great Britain eventually adopted “not guilty by reason of insanity” as a formal provision in its body of criminal law.

What’s the lesson here? It’s that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect presidents and kings. And just like physical illnesses—such as those experienced by Washington—it can shape qualities that contribute to triumph. At the same time, as in the case of King George III, it may also sadly lead to tragedy. 

It’s a lesson worth thinking about this Presidents’ Day. 


MAR, 02, 2017 05:20:33 PM
The blog posts encourage me and those who read these surely must appreciate them too. I agree that being able to express our walk with our illness reduces stigma. Giving some reasons why we have hope would encourage others. Loving support from a loyal husband and other family members, friends, a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ with a healthy church involvement, persistent medical help(very important) and NAMI supports like this blog bring me hope. Thanks!

MAR, 01, 2017 09:26:55 AM
I like to be able to explore this..I have few people I can discuss my mental health problems with, even within my own family. Mostly my psychiatrist and a friend who is an MSN. I am so encouraged learning about successful people who experienced the private anguish and joys of bipolar disorder. I like learning about ADHD because it helps me understand unexplainable self-sabotaging behaviors that I have struggled with and been unable to change or understand.

FEB, 27, 2017 12:59:35 PM
Zachary Buckhalter
I try to educate others about what I deal with. I am not only mentally ill (As mild as it is) but also Autistic (Asperger`s Syndrome). I have dealt with judgment from others because of both. Judgment because they either don`t understand or, to put it bluntly, don`t care. It`s the old saying, "Walk a mile in my shoes, you will see where I have been."

FEB, 24, 2017 11:19:28 AM
Pam Sinnett
Leadership of any type even that of a parent demands a certain amount pushing onward through negative symptoms to get a project done. Hopefully the person would have some healthy ways of coping with or treating of the potential debilitating symptoms.
Hopefully the person would have support around him or her that could be helpful influences towards a worthy goal. And very important, there would be helpers that would be honest enough to call a halt if the afflicted one needs to step out of the game for a time in order to receive treatment.

FEB, 23, 2017 02:27:37 PM
I'm a licensed mental health clinician and I also have OCD, so I love what you said about mental health conditions shaping qualities that lead to triumph. I'll always have OCD but have learned to control it. OCD is part of me...a small part. It makes me who I am. I like who I am and would never change that. Besides, having a OCD has its benefits: I rarely misplace any papers, because I have a very neat desk.

FEB, 23, 2017 09:09:39 AM
Interesting post. I would challenge the idea that mental illness gives a person special insight into life or a special strength or determination. ( I also challenge the idea that mental illness like bipolar gives a person special artistic abilities. ). I do believe that illness and disability can motivate someone struggling to reach out to minister or care for others in the same boat. Mental illness offers no special benefits. It is a horrific disease. Anything special about the person is already in there and has nothing to do with the illness.

FEB, 20, 2017 02:23:45 PM
Roxanne Reeves
Can a president have a mental illness and still be president? Are we stigmatizing a president or do we have an opportunity at this moment of history, to end the stigma of mental illness? This may be an important "dialectical" moment for mental health advocates.
There HAVE been U.S. Presidents, with various mental illnesses (diagnosed or undiagnosed) at the time of their presidencies. Attitudes, available treatments, and historical circumstances varied for each of them. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/some-of-our-most-beloved-pr…
Here is a Huffington Post summary of recent "historical diagnoses" of Presidents...George W. Bush, a "recovering alcoholic", never officially made it into and through "treatment" for alcoholism. Obfuscation is one means of avoiding marginalization. The presidency of George W. Bush may have been a missed opportunity for ending the impact of stigma of mental illness and substance abuse. The political climate and understanding of known treatments and their availability...kept his Presidency from being "the one".
The Trump presidency is happening at a unique moment for MENTAL HEALTH...when, at the National level, we have recognized MENTAL ILLNESS for its ubiquitous nature - in the Affordable Care Act and 21st Century Cures Act.
Rather than bury or fight back the question of our President's mental health - observed in his expressed words and behaviors - could there be an honest and open discussion, in keeping with the MENTAL HEALTH REFORM movement that has been taking place? Could we take apart the concept of STIGMA - examine it from a "dialectical" perspective...(NAMI teaches "dialectical" thinking techniques along with mindfulness)?
Could STIGMA be examined for what is good and bad about it, the highs and lows of it, up front and behind the scenes of it...the ways stigma advances mental health and the ways it stifles it. And once we resolve THAT ISSUE (just like resolving the question of President Trumps' mental health- possibly illegal, probably unconstitutional, clearly dehumanizing behaviors, notwithstanding), we may find ourselves at a whole new level.
Or perhaps the dualistic nature of STIGMA cannot be resolved, but in taking it apart - openly, and in public - examining it from every perspective...it's impact on us may become less important.
"Happy Presidents' Day". rr, 2/10/2017

Some Of Our Most Beloved Presidents Likely Experienced Mental Illness
So why are we still stigmatizing it?

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