When Donald Trump won the presidency, I feared America would not survive a man suffering such a severe personality disorder. But then I wondered if there were other presidents with serious personality disorders. If so, well, we survived those presidents. I thought I’d read up on this.
What have I found? I’ve found 11 presidents I believe to have been disturbed. None led to dictatorships.
John Adams was our second president. The first was George Washington, the third was Thomas Jefferson. Adams was an intellectual who suffered from severe paranoia. He largely spent his days in the White House worrying that his cabinet was talking about him behind his back in order to overthrow him. As a result, he accomplished little, other than enlarging upon presidential trappings to show people he really was the president. Fortunately, the times did not require that he do much.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of action, a proud American, a poised scholar and a hard worker. Nevertheless, he was a big liar. He repeatedly wrote fabricated essays about how Alexander Hamilton was secretly meeting with British royalty to create an American royalty that would shortly return the States to British control. He also falsely accused Hamilton and others of stealing from the treasury.
Andrew Jackson was an uneducated woodsman from Tennessee, an Indian fighter and the winner of the Battle of New Orleans. With a fiery temper, he paid no attention to aides and did what he wanted. Cross him at their peril. He wanted to return America to “the people.” After his inauguration, he invited all the people attending to come to the White House and have a big party. Thirty thousand came, overwhelmed security and stripped the building, stealing silverware, curtains, food, wine, furniture and paintings. It was chaos.
He also made two huge errors during his presidency. He completely dismantled the federal bank that was backing our national currency. Fifty years later, this drove the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Another president, Grover Cleveland, was forced to borrow money from businessman J.P. Morgan at high interest to save the country.
Personally, Jackson ran the White House with an iron hand. He made every decision and everyone curried his favor, even his family. When a friend of his, a man named Eaton, became the Secretary of War because he had been Jackson’s buddy in the Indian Wars, Eaton asked Jackson to give his blessing to marry a woman who was essentially a nymphomaniac. Jackson said if you love her, I will stand by no matter what. This insatiable woman so enraged the wives of the other cabinet members that they shunned her. The wives caused the husbands to shun her, too. When Jackson learned of it, he told all his cabinet members to accept this awful woman or he would fire them. Only one agreed. He fired the rest. All that was left was Jackson and Eaton and one other cabinet member.
John Tyler, president from 1840 to 1844, was a clueless Virginia planter who had no idea how to deal with politicians. When William Henry Harrison died and Tyler became president, he turned his back on his party, ignored their principles and got the party so mad they expelled him. A man without a party couldn’t even get nominated for a second term.
Abe Lincoln suffered severe highs and lows. Today we might call it bipolar disorder. When he argued with his fiancée, Mary, his best friend, Joshua Speed, went to Lincoln’s home and later reported, “Lincoln went crazy—had to remove razors from his room—take away all knives and other such dangerous things—&c—it was terrible.” That was in his youth. By the time he became president, he’d found some inner strength to keep those swings at bay.
Andrew Johnson became president when Lincoln was shot. He professed to want to continue Reconstruction at war’s end, but after his assumption of the presidency he curried the favor of the defeated Southern white plantation owners. Many believe this was because, when he was a young man, from a poor family, the planters had shunned him. He allowed the KKK to run wild with shootings and lynchings until bigotry returned to the South. He was impeached but, by one vote, not asked to resign.
As the nation’s top general, Ulysses S. Grant defeated and eventually starved out the armies of Robert E. Lee in the Civil War. He was a good man, a national hero and a supporter of Lincoln’s Reconstruction. He was also incorruptible. Unfortunately, he could be completely conned by anyone with a financial scheme, even defend the Schemers after they were convicted and sent off to jail. As a result, his presidency was laced with corruption in which he had no part. Because he was an innocent and a hero, the public elected him to a second term, where he suffered more of the same.
This had been a lifelong problem. In his 20s, he was conned out of his money so often it became impossible for him to support his wife and children. He sometimes appeared unwashed, in torn clothes, staggering drunk and begging in the town he grew up in, Georgetown, Ohio.
By the way, as president, Grant was so aware that one drink would send him on a bender, his aides were told to step in and stop him if he looked like he might imbibe. He knew he had to stay sober for these jobs. Scholars say there are just two known occasions when he fell off the wagon during his responsible years.
Woodrow Wilson was a weepy, fragile academic who had difficultly controlling his emotions. He was also a romantic, an idealist and a bigot. His singular good work, his idealistic creation of the League of Nations, failed to get congressional approval.
Herbert Hoover, a plodding, wealthy businessman and technocrat, was too myopic to see that a blistering tariff war he created caused the bottom to fall out of the economy, thus launching the Great Depression. He also did not care to provide relief for the homeless and starving, nor did he have the brains to bring the country back out of the Depression. He lost to FDR by a landslide when he ran for a second term.
Lyndon Johnson was a backwoods Texan, possibly the least educated man to become president in the 20th century, yet he was a successful backslapping dealmaker opposing integration on behalf of the South. But when he became vice president to the intellectual John F. Kennedy, he felt humbled by the good works proposed by that man, and when Johnson assumed the presidency he turned his back on the South and drove through Congress all of Kennedy’s stalled Civil Rights proposals. He declared “What is a president for?” when Southerners asked him to explain this. As for new programs, he soon saw he had limited aptitude to decide on them, disastrously escalating the Vietnam War and declaring an unwinnable war on poverty, and so announced he would not run for a second term.
Richard Nixon was a humorless, win-at-all-costs politician who believed he stood above the law. He had burglars bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee during his re-election campaign to parry his opponents’ every move. They were caught doing it, he denied knowing about it, declaring “I am not a crook,” and then, when impeached, resigned in disgrace before the proceedings could begin.
As for Donald Trump, I am happy to report that, so far, anyway, he has not muzzled the press, fired the Supreme Court or dissolved Congress. He’s railed against them. But he’s not created a dictatorship. Yet.
In my opinion, he has the personality of a dictator, but perhaps he is, at 71, too old to begin being one. Nearly every other dictator I know of was in their 30s or 40s when they dismantled democracies. In their 70s, not so much.