Diagnosing the Presidential Candidates, Circa 1799

What would our forbearers make of current American politics and especially this election season? Many aspect of our contemporary system would surprise the founders, starting with the existence and influence of political parties; they opposed parties and hoped to avoid them. They would be alarmed to learn that prospective presidents actually run for office, since politicking was seen as unseemly, a sign of low character. If they got past parties and individuals publicly vying to become president, the rhetoric of American politics would constitute another surprise. Some of their unease might have come from their understanding of humoral physiology, an ancient but long-popular system for analyzing health and character.

For millennia people looked back to the ancient Greeks for a theory that posited that the human body attains a state of health (both physical and emotional) when all bodily "humors" balanced. According to this theory, four humors--each represented in a bodily fluid: blood, bile (black or yellow) or phlegm--shaped individual temperament. Perfection in health and character came from perfect equilibrium, which combined all attributes. Individuals with unequal humors displayed extreme personalities and were thought to be susceptible to particular ailments. Draining some blood out of a patient was one of the more popular ways to cure imbalance. Caregivers applied leeches to the skin to suck out blood or, if leeches were unavailable, simply slit the skin to allow an appropriate amount of blood to trickle out. In a famous case, his physicians tried to save George Washington on his deathbed by bleeding him. Used on Washington in 1799, bleeding remained a widespread and well-regarded cure.

Looking at the modern American political scene from this vantage point, it seems apparent that we reward candidates with an angry or "choleric" temperament. Anger has come to dominate much political rhetoric, replacing the fear that was so prevalent after the attacks of September 2001. Angry people, under the humoral system, were understood to have an excess of yellow bile. Any politician who shouts and interrupts evidences this problem. A choleric person suffering from this condition displays ambition, irritability and anger. Donald Trump's foes understand his appeal in these terms, seeing him expressing his own anger and fomenting that of his supporters. The health cure for such a temperament--besides bitter herbs taken both orally and applied externally as a paste--was "cupping," in which hot, moist cups were pressed against the skin. Blisters raised in this way were thought to help rebalance the humors.

Looking to other candidates for tell-tale signs of imbalanced humors might be instructive. Is Hillary Clinton naturally cautious and reserved, or has she adopted that persona as she has made her way through a political landscape that remains male-dominated? If early modern observers could have recovered from the prospect of a female leader who was not of royal blood, they might have deemed Hillary "melancholic." An excess of black bile was the cause of this temperament, characterized by introversion and excessive caution.

If Hillary inclines--whether by choice or by temperament--to melancholia, Bernie Sanders might be judged somewhat "sanguine." This imbalance, arising from an excess of blood, was thought to make an individual optimistic and creative. While his opponent positions herself as the cautious candidate, the most experienced of the two, Sanders offers innovative solutions. His hopeful message in favor of deep change appeals especially to younger, educated (and white) voters who agree that change is needed. While Sanders aims pointed criticisms at the very wealthy and the policies that favor them, he does not indulge in the excessively aggressive rhetoric purveyed by Trump.

The final humoral imbalance, one associated with an excess of Phlegm, was thought to make a person passive and lethargic. While no candidate could today command attention with such a personality, Ben Carson's understated personal style may have come closest to this mark. He would then represent a "phlegmatic" temperament. According to the humoralists, the fact that he withdrew from the race would make perfect sense, given his excess of phlegm. Why other candidates, the choleric Christie for instance, did so, might be less apparent.

Believers in this theory of health and temperament would look for a candidate who displayed a balanced among all the humors and therefore did not fall under one of these personality types. This ideal echoes what John Kasich intends when he claims to be the only adult in the Republican primary; it also well captures Barak Obama's unflappable style as President. Clearly many founders would not have looked beyond Obama's race to appreciate his approach. The men around Washington's deathbed would have feared an angry leader but they would have been stunned by an African-American one.