Subject:  Sanity — McNaughton Rule   

Event:  Murder of Edward Drummond by Daniel McNaughton, 1843

On January 20, 1843, a woodturner named Daniel McNaughton approached another man from behind walking on the sidewalk near Charing Cross in London.  McNaughton then took a pistol from his coat pocket and shot the man in the back at point-blank range.  A nearby policeman heard the shot and immediately tackled McNaughton, wrestled his gun from him, and placed him under arrest.   The man who was shot was Edward Drummond, the private secretary to English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.  Five days later this case became a murder case when Drummond died of his gunshot wound.

When questioned, McNaughton admitted that his murder of Drummond was a case of mistaken identity:  his actual target was the prime minister, who resembled Drummond.  The motive for the crime was paranoid delusion:  McNaughton claimed that he was being followed and harrassed by government spies.

At his trial McNaughton was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was committed to a criminal lunatic asylum.  The general public’s reaction to the verdict was outrage, which resulted in the House of Lords meeting to establish a more clear definition of “insanity” for the courts. The result of this meeting was the McNaughton Rules, which for the first time gave courts clear guidelines for dealing with the insane in legal proceedings.

The McNaughton Rules established that jury members should be instructed to presume that any accused person is sane.  Only when evidence is presented to the contrary should the jury consider grounds for insanity.  If this evidence is presented, it must clearly prove that the mind of the accused was diseased to the degree that he or she did not know that the crime was wrong.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, the murder of Polonius echoes the McNaughton case.  Soon after arriving in his mother’s bedroom, Hamlet sees a rustling behind a curtain.  Thinking it is his Uncle Claudius, the king who killed his father, Hamlet begins stabbing wildly at the curtain.  He soon discovers that instead of killing his Uncle Claudius, he has murdered Polonius, Claudius’ trusted counselor and co-conspirator.

Is Hamlet’s murder of Polonius the act of a madman?  Testifying to what she eye-witnessed, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, seems to argue for a verdict of insanity under the McNaughton Rules:

Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend

Which is the mightier: in his lawless fit,

Behind the arras hearing something stir,

Whips out his rapier, cries, ‘A rat, a rat!’

And, in this brainish apprehension, kills

The unseen good old man.

You might think a mother would be a reliable authority on her son’s mental state.  Generations of Shakespeare fans, however, have seen it differently, concluding that Hamlet just might be the only sane person in the entire play.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the McNaughton rule, and how would might it impact your decision if you were a part of a jury for a murder trial?

Challenge:  Aristotle said, “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”  Do a search on quotations that deal with the fine line between genius and madness.  Select the one you like the best, and explain why you like it.


Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex.  Tarcher, 1990.

January 20: Chiasmus Day

Jfk inauguration.jpg
January 20, 1961

On this day in 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the United States’ 34th president.  From the text of his inaugural address, Kennedy uttered what has become probably the most famous sentence in political history:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy, who at 42 years of age was the youngest president ever elected, exuded youth, enthusiasm, and idealism as he proclaimed that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . .”  The skillful use of rhythm, repetition, alliteration, antithesis, and parallelism make Kennedy’s inaugural address a rhetorical masterpiece.  The speech’s most memorable line, however, features a distinctive rhetorical device called chiasmus.

Chiasmus, which is also known as antimetabole, is the “all for one, one for all” device.  It is a special brand of parallel structure that involves a rhetorical criss-cross or flip-flop. What makes chiasmus distinctive is that the words are not just repeated, rather they are repeated in reverse order, as in, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

In order to see the power of Kennedy’s chiasmus, contrast what Kennedy might have said with what he actually said:

Without chiasmus:  “Do not be self-centered, thinking only of yourself; instead; think of what you can do to contribute to your country.”

With chiasmus:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Notice how with chiasmus the reversal of the words “you” and “country” causes the reader to reevaluate the relationship between the two ideas.  More than just a rhetorical flourish, this is one of the central themes of Kennedy’s message.

Also notice that not only does chiasmus make the sentence more memorable, but also the sentence’s simple, clear words pack a punch.  Of the sentence’s 17 words, all but two are single-syllable words.  The only word of more than a single syllable is the keyword “country,” which is repeated twice for emphasis.  Like Lincoln and Churchill before him, Kennedy knew the power of clear, concise language.

Today’s Challenge:  What Chiasmus Can Do for You

As seen in Kennedy’s use of chiasmus, it is an especially useful device for reversing an audience’s attitude or attempting to correct or flip an audience’s thinking.  What are some general beliefs or attitudes held by many people that you think should be changed?  How might you employ chiasmus to state the change in belief or attitude that you want to see?

Create a sentence using chiasmus that states a change in a belief or attitude that you would like to see.  For example:   

“You don’t own your cellphone; your cellphone owns you.”

Then write a short speech using that sentence as your title.  In your speech explain specifically the change you would like to see and why you think this change would be an improvement.

If you can’t think of an original sentence, create a spin-off chiasmus using Kennedy’s sentence or some of the other examples below:

Quitters never win and winners never quit.

If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.

Do things right, and do the right things.

One should work to live, not live to work.

Example spin-off:  Don’t ask what your English teacher can do for you, ask what you can do for your English teacher.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. -Thomas Henry Huxley