Psychohistory has tended to be psychoanalytical history, the application of Freudian concepts to historical figures. This approach has come under fire for reducing motives to drives and the real conflicts of history to intrapsychic conflicts among the holy trinity of ego, id, and superego. Fifty years ago psychoanalytic theory and therapy dominated the culture. No more. The revolution in American psychiatry from the Freudian to the medical paradigm has given historians the basis for a fresh approach to psychology. Instead of focusing on posited conflicts between instinct and repression, they now tend to examine observable psychiatric illness rooted in childhood events. Depression may be less interesting than neurosis, but its symptoms are more open to empirical validation. And whereas neurosis is rarely disabling, depression stops you cold.
It stopped Calvin Coolidge cold. As Robert E. Gilbert shows in his recent psychiatric biography, The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression, Coolidge ceased to function as President after the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Calvin Jr.
On the afternoon of June 30, 1924, Calvin and his older brother, John, played several sets of tennis with the two White House doctors; Tuesday, they played again, and agreed to play once more on Wednesday. Calvin Jr. did not show up for the Wednesday match. He was in bed with a temperature. He had not worn socks to play tennis, and had developed a blister on one of his toes. The doctors discovered it too late to stop the systemic infection that, five days later, killed him. As he was dying, his father repeatedly pressed a locket into his hand until his son fell into a coma and could no longer grip it. "It contained a photograph of [the President's] mother and a lock of her hair," Gilbert writes, "so similar to young Calvin's in color and texture."