Professional psychiatry was only in its infancy at the end of the 19th century and many physicians disputed its scientific basis. In 1892, the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane was reorganzied as the American Medico-Pyschological Association. Four years later, psychiatrists—or alienists as they were then called—hurled their opinions into the political arena in a controversy over the sanity of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was heartily disliked by many middle-class urban professionals, precisely the sort of people who became alienists. In this letter to the New York Times of September 27, 1896, a self-identified anonymous “Alienist” declared that Bryan was of a “mind not entirely sound.” While it seems unlikely that this attack had much impact on the outcome of the election (the paper’s readers were already unlikely to vote for Bryan), this would not be the last time that elites would seek to discredit radical opponents of the status quo by branding them "crazy."
To the Editor of the New York Times:
I hope that you will give me the opportunity in your valuable paper to call attention, and that very seriously, to the mental condition of Mr. William J. Bryan, I am old enough to remember vividly the spectacle of Mr. Greeley stumping the country for the Presidency and confident of his personal power with the people. I remember and, indeed, know well the medical details of his final insanity and pathetic end.
It has been with a professional rather than political interest, therefore, that I have watched Mr. Bryan in his imitation and expansion of the campaign method so disastrous to his predecessor.
And I think I can say now without any bias that Mr. Bryan presents in his speech and action striking and alarming evidence of a mind not entirely sound. I say alarming, for, apart from considerations of humanity, what could be more disastrous than a madman in the White House. It would not only be the direct harm that might result from irresponsible acts, but it would forever weaken the trust in the soundness of republics and the sanity of the voting masses.
Perhaps the silver Democrats who read this may think I am not serious; or else that I am but a hireling expert bought by Hanna’s gold to help the syndicates and defame the Tribune of the People.
Let me at once then present the reasons why, as an alienist, it has gradually seemed to me that the mind of Bryan is becoming unhinged.
Mr. Bryan has not a good hereditary history. At least it is stated on the best authority that his father was a man who would be called a religious fanatic and crank. When, for example, he was a Judge in Southern Illinois, he was accustomed to get on his knees and pray fervently for Divine guidance, before rendering his decisions; if they were reversed it was the judgement of the Almighty.
Bryan’s history is characterized by that restlessness and “errabund” tendency which is recognized and indicating the insane taint. He was a lawyer who neglected or never gained a practice, a journalist of questionable success, a Congressman, a politician, a professional orator and agitator, an apostle of an economic theory without ever having a training in economics; this is his story, and it furnishes suggestions of an ill-balanced mind— such minds as with less moral feeling make men who start revolutions and commit crimes. Intense egotism, an extraordinary self-confidence in his capacities, his influence, and his opinions are characteristics which Mr. Bryan perhaps has always possessed; but their steady increase is now both perceptible and abnormal. Mr Bryan believes, as plainly as words and actions can show, that he is above his advisers and managers; that he holds the hearts of the people and can by his own personality and assumed eloquence win his election.
When egotism becomes abnormal, the individual practically suffers from a delusion, and his state is known as that of “meglomania.” The presence of expansive and grandiose ideas in men of genius, or in men who have done something that has proved their power is natural enough. But here is a man with neither experience in statesmanship nor training in finance, nor success in his profession, who is spluttering mediocrities over forty-five States, and thinks that he is winning them to him and gaining for his country financial salvation. And this belief is growing in him, though to every impartial observer his cause is becoming steadily weaker.
Let me, however, enumerate some further evidences of mental deterioration, or original twist. Querulousness is a common quality of active and morbidly sensitive minds—so much so that “paranoia querulenta” is a form of insanity well recognized by alienists. The speeches of Mr. Bryan are now a continuing series of fault-findings, scoldings, and defensive criticism. Paragraph after paragraph is made up of answer, retort, excuse, taunt, and defiance. The sanity and genius of statesman are shown in constructive eloquence and wise action; but Mr. Bryan in a hundred speeches has not enriched oratory with a single phrase or economics with a single thought, or, let me add, humor with a single smile. He has a querulent logorrhoea. The tendency to fixed ideas is a marked and dangerous evidence of mental weakness. A perusal of Mr. Bryan’s speeches shows an increasing intensity of conviction that the real evils of this world are:
Idle men having idle money.
On the other hand the good things are:
In his Philadelphia speech, Sept. 22, he says: “The free-silver cause is true—”because every enemy to good government is against ‘free silver.’"
If Mr. Bryan believes this, no further evidence need to be quoted to show a delusional condition of mind.
I am not an expert in money questions, and I advance a further argument for my views with some hesitation; but it appears to me that Mr. Bryan has a confused mind. He states explicitly that the money question is a simple one; yet he does not at any time or place explain it, or show how his policy will make times prosperous. He starts out to do it, but wanders from the point, and in all his recent speeches shows a lack of popular association and co-ordination of thought-logic, if you wish—and leaves the impression of a mind confused by problems too deep to be understood or presented by him. I defy any one to read a latter-day Bryan speech and carry away any clear ideas about his views of the money question.
The habit of excessive writing, of explaining, amplifying, and reiterating, of letter making and pamphleteering, forms a morbid symptom of known as “graphomania.” Some men may overload their natural tendency to write, but a certain class of lunatics use nearly all their mental activities in this occupation, to the endless annoyance of their friends, relatives and physicians.
A perfectly analogous tendency is shown by some whose gift is easy speech rather than writing, and to whom the sight of a crowd of people at once awakens a desire to be their orator. This passion, which shows itself a logomania, has plainly developed in Mr. Bryan. In one of his speeches he distinctly says: “I never see a crowd of people that I do not wish to address them.” He has become a slave to this morbid oratorical impulse. The stimulus of morbid egotism, the desire for acclaim, the idea that he is an apostle to preach an impossible creed have turned him into an oratorical monomaniac, who mistakes the curiosity of the idle and the applause of the discontented for tributes to his eloquence.
You will thus see in Mr. Bryan’s history one finds a bad hereditary history, a life of restlessness and mental vagabondage, an intense, overmastering, and growing egotism, grandiose ideas that are almost, if not quite delusional; a morbid querulousness and sensitiveness to criticism; fixed ideas about gold and silver, classes and masses, &c, that are not reasonable or reasonably defended, but are passionately affirmed and reiterated; a confused and illogical mental state, and an oratorical monomania growing stronger as his voice grows weaker, all combined with a constant exaggeration of statement and sophistication of facts that cannot but strike one as astonishing in a candidate who must know that all he says is carefully scrutinized.
So much for history and symptoms, Mr. Editor. Let me say a word now about the causes which have led to the state of things.
The conditions in Mr. Bryan’s present life are quite enough to unbalance a mind that had no natural lack of steadiness. A few months ago he was a man practically unknown; he had no record of past nor any promise of future achievements. He was suddenly, as the result of an outburst of male hysteria, thrust into extraordinary prominence. Enormous responsibilities at once came upon him; he started to tour a continent; he has interviewed countless people, and made a succession of exhausting speeches; he has traveled night and day with little rest and irregular hours. Under the daily excitements of the stump, knowing that he has a future of the highest power of disgraceful oblivion before him, it is not any wonder that his mind should show signs of the strain.
Mr. Bryan, in my opinion, is developing into what Italian alienists call a political mattoid, or what German writers would call paranoia reformatoria. In a recent treatise on the subject, (Entarlung und Genie, p. 203,) I find this striking paragraph: “In the histories of mattoids, we find that a strong characteristics the tendency to assume a kind of apostleship, united with an unshakable belief in their declarations and services rendered. And this belief in times of political agitation often leads the mattoid into prominent political roles. He often possesses certain tricks of thought and expression which men of sense and honesty will not or cannot use, but which can quickly with the masses.”
Surely this applies will to the support of my diagnosis. The political mattoid is an average man with a talent, or pseudo talent, that he cannot use wisely or sanely. His judgement is false, his actions foolish, egotistic, and extravagant. What is more serious, if given a chance, he surely ends in some disaster or folly from the dominance of his grandiose idea, or, perhaps, from some real insane or delirious act.
It does not much matter about names, however. The evidence that Mr. Bryan is developing into a political mattoid, or a paranoiac reformer, or a cranky and unmanageable politician, is, I believe, strongly manifest, and is worth the serious attention of the American people.
Source: New York Times, 27 September 1896.