The Journey Inward: Did Lincoln's Depression Add To His Greatness


June 8, 2017

A year before he died the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy told a reporter for the New York World about the reaction of a young Caucasus warrior viewing a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The young man’s eyes welled up with tears. Tolstoy asked him why he was so sad. He replied: “Don’t you find, judging from his picture, that his eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow?”

The warrior’s perceptiveness about Lincoln’s careworn face suggests that if we look at his photographs we also see a measure of sadness. Rarely smiling, his face is etched with creases perhaps revealing burdens from his past and the awesome responsibility of high office.

We now know his outward expression was a manifestation of depression. No scholar has done more to catalogue and understand his struggle with depression than Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has written about his own depression.

In his book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy,” Shenk believes Lincoln went through three stages of depression. The first hit in 1825 when he was 26 and grew out of his failed attempts to win a seat in the state legislature.

At the time he said he was “the most miserable man living…I must die or be better.” This statement reflects his morbid sense of not wanting to live, which hounded him periodically throughout his adult life and is a key sign of depression.

Lincoln’s marriage in 1842 to the emotionally troubled Mary Todd marks the second stage. Lincoln had second thoughts about his marriage and approached his wedding with stoic resignation, which overcame his public exhibitions of despair.

During this period, he won a seat in the House of Representatives but lost out on two Senate seats. When he lost the Senate race to Stephen Douglas in 1858, we get a glimmer into the way he moved through his depression. He read the Bible regularly and believed he possessed a certain calling to make a positive contribution. He resolved to work for higher causes such as universal justice.

By the time he was elected president his melancholy disposition was a regular feature of his personality. This would be the third stage of his depression. For example, by the mid-1850s the cast of Lincoln’s face and body suggested deep, abiding gloom to nearly all who crossed his path.

A young lawyer, Henry C. Whitney, first met Lincoln around this time. In his memoirs Whitney recalls an incident in Bloomington, Ill. He had arrived in town and went to a bar. There he met John T. Stuart, Lincoln’s first law partner. When the conversation turned to Lincoln, Stuart remarked that he was a hopeless victim of melancholy.

Whitney expressed surprise, to which Stuart replied, “Look at him now.”

Whitney turned and saw Lincoln sitting by himself in a corner of the room, “wrapped in abstraction and gloom” and after observing him for a while added “….his sad face would assume, at times deeper phases of grief: but no relief came from dark and despairing melancholy.”

Associates knew he was sad; they also knew he had an amazing ability to work through sadness. (Lincoln did not have access to the benefits of modern day therapy or pharmacology).

His therapy was humor. Once he told a story about an extremely ugly man walking on a narrow road. A woman came by and examined him closely. “You,” she said, “are the ugliest man I ever saw.” Sadly the man answered, “Perhaps so, but I can’t help that.” “No,” the woman allowed, “but you might stay at home.”

Poetry was another outlet. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was one of his favorites. Lincoln also wrote poetry as a way to express his grief, most likely related to the death of his mother. Perhaps his ability to express beautiful prose, such as the “Gettysburg Address,” grew out of his poetic interests.

While president his introspective moods gave shape to his ability to prepare for the worst. Thus, able to persevere, he became a tough-minded yet compassionate leader who recognized imperfection in the divided nation but did not lose hope that the country would see better days ahead.

His melancholic nature allowed him to develop empathy and hold before his countrymen a transcendent vision of working together as one nation. With empathic resolve he could identify with slaves and defeated Southerners. He understood the defeated and downtrodden.

Today our disappointing national leaders exude a superficial demeanor of strength and optimism. One’s sadness and grief is hidden as a flaw of character.

The tragedy is that there is little empathy for the suffering of others. “The least among us” are blamed for their condition. If only they could improve and prosper like the rest of us.

Lincoln once said: “The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature. If I be in pain I wish you to know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you.”

This quote symbolizes Lincoln’s integration of his suffering with his vision. During one of the most challenging times in American history, the Civil War, he was therefore able to say “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” His melancholy did indeed add to his greatness!

(Dr. John Campbell is a semi-retired resident of Brevard)


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