Lincoln's Great Depression

Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation
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When Abraham Lincoln came to the stage of the 1860 state Republican convention in Decatur, Illinois, the crowd roared in approval. Men threw hats and canes into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; according to an early account, "the roof was literally cheered off the building." Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House.

Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn't seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, observing from the convention floor, "I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw."

The next day the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills and the smells of sweat and whiskey. Later the lieutenant governor of Illinois, William J. Bross, walked the floor. He saw Lincoln sitting alone at the end of the hall, his head bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, "I'm not very well."

Lincoln's look at that moment—the classic image of gloom—was familiar to everyone who knew him well. Such spells were just one thread in a curious fabric of behavior and thought that his friends called his "melancholy." He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. He told jokes and stories at odd times—he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. As a young man he talked more than once of suicide, and as he grew older he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fate and the forces of God. "No element of Mr. Lincoln's character," declared his colleague Henry Whitney, "was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy." His law partner William Herndon said, "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked."

In 1998 I chanced upon a reference to Lincoln's melancholy in a sociologist's essay on suicide. I was intrigued enough to investigate the subject and discovered an exciting movement in the field of Lincoln studies. Actually, it was a rediscovery of very old terrain. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Lincoln's melancholy was widely accepted by students of his life, based as the subject was on countless reminiscences by people who knew him. But in the 1940s professional historians—taking what they regarded as a "scientific" approach to the study of the past—began to reject personal memories in favor of "hard" evidence. Their wildly inconsistent application of the rule suggests that they really wanted to toss out evidence they found distasteful. Still, the effect was profound and long-lasting.

Then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, an emerging group of scholars began, independent of one another, to look anew at original accounts of Lincoln by the men and women who knew him. These historians, including Douglas Wilson, Rodney Davis, Michael Burlingame, and Allen Guelzo, had come of age in an era when the major oral histories of Lincoln were treated, as Davis has described it, "like nuclear waste." But they found to their surprise that such sources were more like rich mines that had been sealed off. They reassessed some accounts, dug up others that had been long forgotten, and began to publish these findings, many for the first time, in lavishly annotated volumes. This work felicitously coincided—post—Richard Nixon—with popular demand for frank portraits of public figures' private lives. Today the combination of basic materials and cultural mood allows us a surprising, and bracing, new view of Abraham Lincoln—one that has a great deal in common with the view of him held by his closest friends and colleagues.

Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree. But this diagnosis is only the beginning of a story about how Lincoln wrestled with mental demons, and where it led him. Diagnosis, after all, seeks to assess a patient at just a moment in time, with the aim of treatment. But Lincoln's melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs "treatment" is our own narrow ideas—of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership.

Throughout its three major stages—which I call fear, engagement, and transcendence—Lincoln's melancholy upends such views. With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.

I. Fear

The word appears in an age-old definition of melancholia: "fear and sadness without cause." To be more precise we could say "without apparent cause," or "disproportionate to apparent cause." Although this story is about melancholy throughout, the first part illustrates its dark heart, the querulous, dissatisfied, doubting experience often marked by periods of withdrawal and sometimes by utter collapse. With Lincoln it's instructive to see how he collapsed, but even more so to see how his collapses led him to a signal moment of self-understanding.

By 1835 Lincoln had lived for four years in New Salem, a village in central Illinois that backed up to a bluff over the Sangamon River. Twenty-six years old, he had made many friends there. That summer an epidemic of what doctors called "bilious fever"—typhoid, probably—spread through the area. Among those severely afflicted were Lincoln's friends the Rutledges. One of New Salem's founding families, they had run a tavern and boardinghouse where Lincoln stayed and took meals when he first arrived. He became friendly with Ann Rutledge, a bright, pretty young woman with golden hair and large blue eyes. In August of 1835 she took sick. Visiting her at her family's farm, Lincoln seemed deeply distressed, which made people wonder whether the two had a romantic, and not just a friendly, bond. After Lincoln's death such speculation would froth over into a messy controversy—one that cannot be, and need not be, resolved. Regardless of how he felt about Rutledge while she was alive, her sickness and death drew Lincoln to his emotional edge. Around the time of her burial a rainstorm, accompanied by unseasonable cold, shoved him over. "As to the condition of Lincoln's Mind after the death of Miss R.," Henry McHenry, a farmer in the area, recalled, "after that Event he seemed quite changed, he seemed Retired, & loved Solitude, he seemed wraped in profound thought, indifferent, to transpiring Events, had but Little to say, but would take his gun and wander off in the woods by him self, away from the association of even those he most esteemed, this gloom seemed to deepen for some time, so as to give anxiety to his friends in regard to his Mind."

Indeed, the villagers' anxiety was intense, both for Lincoln's immediate safety and for his long-term mental health. Lincoln "told Me that he felt like Committing Suicide often," remembered Mentor Graham, a schoolteacher, and his neighbors mobilized to keep him safe. One friend recalled, "Mr Lincolns friends … were Compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms—fogs—damp gloomy weather … for fear of an accident." Some villagers worried that he'd end up insane. After several weeks an older couple in the area took him into their home. Bowling Green, the large, merry justice of the peace, and his wife, Nancy, took care of Lincoln for a week or two. When he had improved somewhat, they let him go, but he was, Mrs. Green said, "quite melancholy for months."

Was Lincoln's melancholy a "clinical depression"? Yes—as far as that concept goes. Certainly his condition in the summer of 1835 matches what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labels a major depressive episode. Such an episode is characterized by depressed mood, a marked decrease in pleasure, or both, for at least two weeks, and symptoms such as agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide. Five and a half years later, in the winter of 1840—1841, Lincoln broke down again, and together these episodes suffice for modern clinicians to make an assessment of recurrent major depression.

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