Morris’s Misidentification: Miscasting Thomas Jefferson as an Obsessive Compulsive Personality

Thomas Jefferson, left, by Charles Willson Peale, 1791; John Adams, right, by John Trumbull, c. 1793. (National Park Services/White House)

The characters and contributions of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton are collectively sketched by historian Richard B. Morris in, Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries. Amid descriptions of Hamilton’s grandiose ambitions, Washington’s sullen stiffness, Adams’s humble origins, and Franklin’s protean diplomacy, one finds a sketch of Jefferson. Therein, Morris uses a clinical term, obsessive-compulsive personality as a framework for understanding Jefferson’s character. Ultimately, this is a mischaracterization of Jefferson.

Notwithstanding Morris’s misidentification, it is clear that Morris uses the clinical term quite correctly, as seen through his pointed description and subsequent discussion. Jefferson’s character, however, does not comport with clinical and literary descriptions of the obsessive compulsive personality, except in certain circumscribed ways, which are insufficient to constitute the pattern at large. Understanding this requires a brief description of the obsessive compulsive personality, after which it will be apparent that Jefferson’s temperamental features in some respects conform to the pattern, but in most respects differ from it substantially.

The Obsessive Compulsive Personality
Refreshingly, Morris did not confuse the obsessive-compulsive personality with obsessive compulsive disorder. These are two very different categories,[1] which are easily conflated without contradistinction. Briefly, obsessive compulsive disorder is a clinical anxiety disorder wherein true obsessions (intrusive, anxious thoughts) are assuaged by true compulsions (compulsorily, ritualistic actions).[2] Whether marked by checking, fears of contamination, or otherwise, obsessive compulsive disorder is a potentially transient condition erupting at certain periods of a person’s life, allowing temporal perspective on a pre-symptomatic past and a post-symptomatic future.[3] As such, obsessive compulsive disorder, like cancer or any number of other physical illnesses, can be easily contrasted with the person it afflicts.[4] Obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms are rather unambiguously deleterious from a clinical perspective, while also seeming to interfere with standards of life success, neither of which is true of the eponymously similar obsessive compulsive personality style, which can now be positively described without further preface.

The obsessive compulsive personality, the actual pattern of present interest, has been variously called anal character, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, or anankastic personality disorder.[5] Whatever label ascribed, obsessive personality, as it will hence forward be labeled, has been defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders[6] as a “pervasive pattern with preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.”  The American Psychiatric Association further defines the pattern via the following “symptoms:”[7]

(1)  is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost
(2)  shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion
(3)  is excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships
(4)  is over-conscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values
(5) is reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things
(6) shows rigidity and stubbornness

The obsessive personality is marked by a general impulse to prepare for the future in an attempt to forestall possible exigencies. Previous research has highlighted[8] this pattern’s cognitive features, such as future oriented thought,[9] wherein the present is used to safeguard the future.  Similarly, related research has highlighted this pattern’s emotional features, such as alternations between behavioral overcontrol and dyscontrol,[10] wherein habitually tight control over emotions is interrupted by the infrequent outburst or tirade. These are chief among several features which have been part of the clinical description of obsessive personality for decades,[11] even as they have not been highlighted among diagnostic criteria. Looking to its original description, when it was dubbed anal character by Freud,[12] obsessive personality was thought to consist of a tripartite constellation of orderliness, parsimony, and stubbornness. By contrast, modern trait theorists describe an obsessivepattern of extensive, some would say excessive, conscientiousness.

An Incompletely Conscientious Founder
Richard Morris and John Ferling have separately alleged Jefferson to be an obsessive personality.  In The Rivalry that Forged a Nation,[13] Ferling wrote that Jefferson “frequently showed the traits of an obsessive personality.” In part this is understandable because of Jefferson’s fits of conscientiousness. Let it be recalled that conscientiousness is a hallmark trait of the obsessive person. Narrowly construed, conscientiousness is synonymous with sedulousness, and implies a tendency towards punctilious labor. Rightly, Morris supports his own assertion through a description of Jefferson’s regimentation and toil.  This was a significant trait of Jefferson who was not infrequently at his writing desk, reading or working productively in some way throughout the day.  As does Morris, Ferling cites Jefferson’s studiousness in college to support his claim.

Notwithstanding, these supporting instances can be countered by contrasting evidence, even when confining oneself to the writings of Morris and Ferling. For instance, Ferling recalls that Jefferson’s fifteen months public service leading up to the Declaration of Independence was followed by an extended absence that was considered something of a dereliction of duty by his contemporaries.[14] Upon his return to Virginia, Richard Henry Lee implored Jefferson to accept a diplomatic post, for it was necessary that France be enlisted as a belligerent against England. Citing his wife’s health as an excuse, while defensible, failed to convince Lee who, “directly accused him [Jefferson] of preferring his ‘private enjoyments’ to making sacrifices.”[15] Lee’s admonishments assume their significance by virtue of being parts of a pattern documented by Ferling:

From time to time thereafter, members of Congress appealed to Jefferson to reassume his seat in Congress. ‘We want your Industry and abilities here,’ Adams wrote about a year after Jefferson’s departure. Similarly, General Washington sought to induce him to return to Philadelphia in 1778, but Jefferson was not swayed. Not only did he never leave Virginia in the six years after he departed Philadelphia, but before 1779 he seldom came down from his hilltop mansion outside Charlottesville. Although a member of Virginia’s legislature, he attended only about a quarter of its sessions during this period.[16]

There were also calls on Jefferson by Edmund Pendleton to “make sacrifices for ‘the rising Generation.’” John Hancock urged his acceptance of a diplomatic post to France, an appointment he assumed only at a much later date. Similarly, seemingly while thinking of Jefferson among others, Washington asked, “Where are our men of abilities . . . why do they not come forth to save their country?” Jefferson was likewise reproved for displaying little in the way of “patriotism and public virtue,” and for failing to “Deny . . . [his] darling Pleasures.”[17] This sustained epistolary assault ultimately induced Jefferson to assume a two year post as the wartime governor of Virginia.

As cited previously,[18] Shapiro has noted that obsessive personalities feel pressed by necessity and obligation; they exist under a “continuous experience of tense deliberateness, a sense of effort, and of trying” that is ever present and experienced, “in the absence of inspiration or immediate external pressure.”[19]  In contrast, we here see Jefferson assuming responsibility in intervals, after much deliberation, and in acquiescence to external pressure.

The Other Side of a Super-Trait
To be generous, one can say that the labors of Jefferson fulfill the most basic requirement of obsessive-personality, because obsessive personality is described as a “disorder” of extreme conscientiousness.  Yet even here there is a basic problem: conscientiousness is a super-trait.  It actually has two pronounced facets[20] lurking behind the single label.  One, of course, is industriousness, which aptly characterizes Jefferson, at least through many periods of his life as a planter and public servant. The other is rigid scrupulosity, to which Jefferson’s actions, in many instances, fail to conform.  Jefferson was unarguably a great man, but was only a good man according to certain standards.  Even as he was a loyal Virginian and patriotic American, he embraced mankind generally in true enlightenment fashion.  Very often, his ends were true, but sometimes his means were questionable. Employing Madison’s old college roommate in the state department to be an organ of opposition was such an instance. More pointedly, Jefferson showed questionable morals in his private life through the infamous Maria Cosway affair, for example.  The other side of conscientiousness, then, is punctiliousness, a strict scrupulosity in moral matters, which Jefferson did not seem to display with any degree of consistency, unless we look to more superficial manners and niceties typical of eighteenth-century Virginian gentlemen.

To see that the record of Jefferson’s actions did not rise to the sanctimonious scrupulosity routinely extending from obsessive conscientiousness, we need look no further than to a few pages in Morris’s own book, where he writes:

His one-sided romance ended, Jefferson consoled himself with misogynous outbursts, and turned to the companionship of men. Henceforth the only women to whom he was to be attracted were either married or once married.

As further explained by way of example, over a seven year interval, during part of which he himself was married, Jefferson made advances to the wife of his acquaintance and neighbor, Mr. John Walker. Though delayed, Jefferson substantiated the accusation by admitting its veracity:

I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknowledge its incorrectness[21]

These not uncommon human failings to which many are subject, are not collected to impugn Jefferson’s character, but only to show that he did not have an obsessive character.

The Absence of Associated Features
To contend that Jefferson was an obsessive personality is to mistake a symptom for a syndrome. In other words, while conscientiousness is undeniably present, the larger constellation of markers is absent. Even were one to find Jefferson sedulous and scrupulous in full and equal measure, this would only establish that he was highly conscientious.  Though high conscientiousness is the hallmark feature of obsessive personality, it is by no means its only feature. If one were not conscientious, one could not have an obsessive personality. Yet, if one were conscientious, it only suggests that one could be an obsessive personality. In other words, conscientiousness is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Without risking a full and deep investigation into a century of literature and lore surrounding the obsessive personality, we can at least look briefly to some few associated features, prominent among obsessives, but negligible in Jefferson.

Jefferson was ebulliently optimistic, while the obsessive is constitutionally pessimistic.  Jefferson thought the Revolutionary War would be short, but it lasted eight years; he supported Citizen Genet past all bounds of propriety from misplaced assumptions; and he ignored Burkean forebodings elicited by the emerging French Revolution.  In addition to characteristic pessimism, obsessives express a measure of cognitive rigidity that disposes them towards routinized patterns of thinking,[22] narrowed attention,[23] and trouble discriminating between important themes and finite details.[24] In contrast to such ideational rigidity, Jefferson displayed a flexible genius that ranged widely across emerging disciplines—literature, art, architecture, husbandry, law, politics, government, and science. Even as he can be cast as an ideologue, Jefferson’s shifting opinions, which Madison attributed to his genius, as with his openness to empirical realities, run contrary to the dogmatism detectable among obsessive minds. By the standards of his day, and when compared with Federalists, Jefferson was something of a progressive, as judged by a record of advocating for freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, but more so by such flights of fancy such as entertaining the renewal of the social contract with each generation. By contrast, obsessive personalities routinely display a stodgy conservatism, if not outright reactionary impulses. Lastly, Jefferson lived beyond his means on untenable extensions of credit, which contrasts with the parsimony that has been part of the clinical description of obsessive personalities since 1908.

A Different Obsessive Founder?
It is useful to correct what amounts to a far-reaching factual error. As the title of this article suggests, however, Morris was not simply mistaken; he erred by way of misidentification. John Adams, another of Morris’s Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny, remained unidentified, even as he was studied and scrutinized by two prominent historians that were at least as well acquainted with Adams as with Jefferson. Though it can only be established in a book-length treatise that this author has in preparation, it can at least be asserted that this obsessive personality pattern marked Adams’ behavior, cognition, and actions: its essence is evident in the fading India ink that marks his diary entries and marginalia; its features colored Adams’ relationships with his wife and sons; obsessive thought can be traced through his publications and policies. An understanding of Adams’ instance of behavioral dyscontrol and rigidity, about which Franklin, Hamilton, McHenry, and others expressed concern,[25] is likewise afforded by this interpretive lens. This latter observation suggests one final remark. The obsessive personality is widely considered to be a disorder, as inferred by its inclusion in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. Still, other research explains obsessive personality as an evolved character type, which is extreme, but not disordered.[26] Reviewing such research is beyond the scope of this article; suffice it to say that, in spite of prevailing orthodoxy classing obsessive personality as a diagnosable condition, its high genetic loading, persistent prevalence within Eurasian populations, and positive correlation with several standards of life success militate against such a conclusion. That much should be apparent from Adams’ record of achievement.


[1]N. A. Gibbs & T. F. Oltmanns, “The relation between obsessive-compulsive personality traits and subtypes of compulsive behavior,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 9, 397-410; D. J. Cohen, Developmental psychopathology, risk, disorder, and adaptation (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons,.2006).

[2]D. L. Pauls, A. Abramovitch, S. L. Rauch, D. A. Geller, “Obsessive-compulsive disorder: an integrative genetic and neurobiological perspective,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15 (6) (2014), 410-424.

[3]Obsessive compulsive disorder is what old line psychoanalysts would call egodystonic; in other words obsessive compulsive disorder, like a transient medical illness, can be separated from the person and their identity.

[4]Obsessive compulsive disorder has a base rate of less than one percent of the general population and a cosmopolitan distribution. In other words, this condition affects a small number of persons in each population. Obsessive compulsive disorder may well be an exaggerated distortion of the behavioral immune system, a set of behaviors evolved to keep one healthy by avoiding parasites, pathogens and putrefaction.

[5]Steven. C. Hertler, “Understanding obsessive compulsive personality disorder: Reviewing the specificity and sensitivity of DSM-IV-TR diagnostic criteria,” Sage Open, 3 (2013), 1-10; Steven. C. Hertler, “A review and critique of obsessive compulsive personality disorder etiologies: Reckoning with heritability estimates,” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 10 (2014), 168-184; Jerrold Pollak, “Obsessive-compulsive personality: A review,” Psychological Bulletin, 86 (1979), 225-241; Jerrold Pollak, “Obsessive-compulsive personality: Theoretical and clinical perspectives and recent research findings,” Journal of Personality Disorders, 1 (1987), 248-262; B. Hummelen, T. Wilberg, G. Pedersen, S. Karterud, “The quality of the DSM-IV obsessive-compulsive personality disorder construct as a prototype category,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196 (2008), 446-455.

[6]American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Ed. (2000) and Fifth Ed. (2013), Washington, DC: Author.

[7]There are actually two more markers, though they have not proven descriptive of the pattern as per later research. The first relates to the hoarding of worthless objects, which is an overly specific instantiation of a more general pattern of parsimoniousness. The second relates to the hoarding of money for future catastrophes, which, again, is not unequivocally wrong, but is certainly excessively specific. An obsessive personality could have a collecting propensity that may well center on money, as on other objects or intangible resources. In reality, these persons are simply frugal.

[8]Steven C. Hertler, “Understanding obsessive compulsive personality disorder.”

[9]L. P. Campos, “Relationship between time estimation and retentive personality traits,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 23 (1966), 59-62; T. F. Pettit, “Anality and time,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 33 (1969), 170-174.

[10]Steven C. Hertler, “A review and critique of obsessive compulsive personality disorder etiologies;” Steven C. Hertler, “The Continuum of conscientiousness: Antagonistic interests among obsessive and antisocial personalities,” Polish Psychological Bulletin, 45 (2014), 52-63.

[11]Leon Saltzman, Treatment of the obsessive personality (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1985).

[12]Peter Gay, The Freud Reader (New York: Norton & Company, 1989).

[13]John E. FerlingJefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 19.

[14]John E. Ferling, A leap in the dark: The struggle to create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 228.

[15]Ibid., 227.


[17]Ibid., 228.

[18]Steven C. Hertler, “A review and critique of obsessive compulsive personality disorder etiologies.”

[19]David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 31.

[20]Though used more informally at present, facetis a psychometric term typically reserved to denote the substructures underlying conscientiousness or any other overarching personality trait as included in, for instance, the five factor model of personality.

[21]A. J. Mapp Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Lenham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 33.

[22]A. Aycicegi-Dinn, W. M. Dinn, & C. L. Caldwell-Harris, “Obsessive-compulsive personality traits: Compensatory response to executive function deficit?” International Journal of Neuroscience, 119 (2009),600–608.

[23]David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles; David Shapiro, Dynamics of Character (New York: Basic Books, 2002); N. Gibbs Gallagher, S. C. South, & T. F. Oltmanns, “Attentional coping style in obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: A test of the intolerance of uncertainty hypothesis,” Personality and Individual Differences, 34 (2003), 41-57.

[24]I. Yovel, W. Revelle, & S. Mineka, “Who sees trees before forest? The obsessive compulsive style of visual attention, Psychological Science, 16(2005),123-129.

[25]Karen E. Robins, James McHenry, forgotten Federalist (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

[26]Hertler, “The Continuum of conscientiousness: Antagonistic interests among obsessive and antisocial personalities;” Steven C. Hertler, “Using urgent states to understand obsessive traits: Promoting a phenomenological apperception of obsessive compulsive personality disorder,” International Review of Social Sciences and Humanities, 8 (2015), 20-25; Steven C. Hertler, ”Migration load, ecological opportunity, and obsessive compulsive personality disorder etiology: Obsessive character as an adaptation to seasonality,” Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1 (2015), 52-67; Steven C. Hertler, “The evolutionary logic of the obsessive trait complex: Obsessive compulsive personality disorder as a complementary behavioral syndrome,” Psychological Thought, 8 (2015), 17–34; Steven C. Hertler, “Estimates & implications of obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) prevalence: OCPD as a common disorder with a cosmopolitan distribution or rare strategy with a northerly distribution?” Psychological Writings, 8 (2015), 1-12; Steven C. Hertler, “Obsessive personality as an adaptive anachronism: The operation of phylogenetic inertia upon obsessive populations in Western modernity,” Psychological Topics, 2 (2015), 207-232; Steven C. Hertler, “The biology of obsessive compulsive personality disorder symptomatology: Identifying an extremely K-selected life history variant,”Evolutionary Psychological Science, (2016), 1-15.

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Morris’s Misidentification: Miscasting Thomas Jefferson as an Obsessive Compulsive Personality

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1 Comment

  • Jefferson described himself as “a hard student” at the College of William and Mary and some of his classmates indicated that he did not permit “the allurement of pleasure [to] drive or seduce him” from his studies. Those descriptions seemed to me to point to one who was obsessive about studying and learning, which in fact was characteristic of Jefferson throughout his long life.

    I don’t recall ever having described Jefferson as obsessive with regard to his behavior in the years immediately following his departure from Congress in the late summer of 1776. Instead, in Jefferson and Hamilton, and in my current book Apostles of Revolution, I portray Jefferson as being committed to the realization of major reforms in Virginia, changes that could be realized only by breaking out of the British Empire. I go on to argue that he was a canny politician who understood that the climate of opinion in 1776 offered the opportunity – likely the only opportunity he would ever have – to achieve those reforms. He put his quest for radical reform in Virginia above serving abroad as a diplomat or returning to Congress. I suppose his relentless toil on behalf of securing those reforms could be seen as obsessive, but I don’t recall using that term.

    John Ferling

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