In Liberty and Insanity in the Age of the American Revolution, Sarah L. Swedberg examines how conceptions of mental illness intersected with American society, law, and politics during the early American Republic. Swedberg illustrates how concerns about insanity raised difficult questions about the nature of governance. Revolutionaries built the American government based on rational principles, but could not protect it from irrational actors that they feared could cause the body politic to grow mentally or physically ill. This book is recommended for students and scholars of history, political science, legal studies, sociology, literature, psychology, and public health.
Sarah L. Swedberg is professor of history at Colorado Mesa University.
Chapter 1 Insanity and Confinement in an Age of Liberty
Chapter 2 The Many Madnesses of Colonial Protest
Chapter 3 Impolitic Madmen: Dividing into Enemy and Friend
Chapter 4 The Folly and Madness of War, 1775-1783
Chapter 5 “The whole Country is now in a state of madness”: Life and Government During Wartime
Chapter 6 An Irrational State, 1783-1787
Chapter 7 “The Temple of Tyranny Has Two Doors,” 1787-1791
Chapter 8 Party Politics and Foreign Policy, 1792-1796
The author has...established fertile ground for others’ considerations. Swedberg frames the book as a counter to a more institutional focus on asylums and as a re-minder that the founding was full of uncertainty and discord. Additionally, political theorists and historians of political culture will benefit from the liberty/insanity bond. The “madness” of Swedberg’s Revolution slots effortlessly into the recent historiographical interest in the plight of Loyalists, the disaffected, and all those who suffered the scourges of war. Anyone interested in affect or the formation of American identity will find much of value.
We know that revolutionary Americans often described their world as one “gone mad,” but few scholars have dug as deeply as Sarah Swedberg to explicate the meaning of that phrase. At a time when security and peace depended on rational government and rational minds, madness posed an existential threat to both to the nation and the people who made up its citizenry. In lively prose grounded in rich research and original analysis, Swedberg masterfully interweaves political, intellectual, cultural, and medical history to show how Americans in the early republic understood insanity as a grave disease that could devastate both political and human bodies and minds.
Is liberty a natural right? Can it be abridged when an individual exhibits signs of mental illness—that is, madness? What then when a whole community descends into the political “madness” of revolution? After decades of intemperate behavior, can such intemperate people launch a successful, rational, self-governing republic? Can madness beget liberty? Does liberty beget madness?
Sarah Swedberg’s fascinating exploration of these questions results in an exciting new treatment of America’s founding narrative. Exploiting the hazy line between madness as a disease and a fit of temper, between insanity as a diagnosis or a cultural metaphor, Swedberg analyzes this conundrum using the patients’ own words in a dazzling new interpretation of the American experiment. Do not miss it.
12/30/21, Choice: This title was included in Choice’s “The Top 75 Community College Titles: December Edition” roundup.