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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Such labels can help us begin to reckon with Lincoln. Most basically, "clinical depression" means it was serious, no mere case of the blues. Someone who has had two episodes of major depression has a 70 percent chance of experiencing a third. And someone who's had three episodes has a 90 percent chance of having a fourth. Indeed, it became clear in Lincoln's late twenties that he had more than a passing condition. Robert L. Wilson, who was elected to the Illinois state legislature with Lincoln in 1836, found him amiable and fun-loving. But one day Lincoln told him something surprising. Lincoln said "that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly," Wilson recalled. "He Sought company, and indulged in fun and hilarity without restraint, or Stint as to time[.] Still when by himself, he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket."

Yet as we learn about Lincoln, a fixation on modern categories should not distract us from the actual events of his life and the frameworks that he and his contemporaries applied to his condition. In his late twenties Lincoln was developing a distinct reputation as a depressive. At the same time, he was scrambling up the ladder of success, emerging as a leader of the Illinois Whig Party and a savvy, self-educated young lawyer. Today this juxtaposition may seem surprising, but in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden—but also, in Lord Byron's phrase, with a "fearful gift." The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.

Both sides of melancholy are evident in a poem on suicide that Lincoln apparently wrote in his twenties. Discussed by his contemporaries but long undiscovered, the poem, unsigned, recently came to light through the efforts of the scholar Richard Lawrence Miller, who was aided by old records that have been made newly available. Without an original manuscript or a letter in which ownership is claimed, no unsigned piece can be attributed definitively to an author. But the evidence points strongly to Lincoln. The poem was published in the year cited by Lincoln's closest friend, Joshua Speed, and its syntax, tone, meter, and other qualities are characteristic of Lincoln.

The poem ran in the August 25, 1838, issue of the Sangamo Journal, under the title "The Suicide's Soliloquy." At the top a note explains that the lines of verse were found "near the bones" of an apparent suicide in a deep forest by the Sangamon River. The conceit, in other words, is that this is a suicide note. As the poem begins, the anguished narrator announces his intention.

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
       Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o'er my carcase growl,
       Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
       Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
       Or by the ravens' cry.

Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,
       And this the place to do it:
This heart I'll rush a dagger through
       Though I in hell should rue it!

Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. The novelist William Styron has likened his depression to a storm in his brain, punctuated by thunderclaps of thought—self-critical, fearful, despairing. Lincoln clearly knew these mental strains (he wrote once of "that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death"); he knew how, oppressed by the clamor, people often become hopeless, and seek the most drastic solution.

To ease me of this power to think,
       That through my bosom raves,
I'll headlong leap from hell's high brink
       And wallow in its waves.

This poem illustrates the complex quality of Lincoln's melancholy in his late twenties. He articulated a sense of himself as degraded and humiliated but also, somehow, as special and grand. And though the character in the poem in the end chooses death by the dagger, the author—using his tool, the pen—showed an impulse toward an artful life. Lincoln's poem expressed both his connection with a morbid state of mind and, to some extent, a mastery over it. But the mastery would be short-lived.

Like the first, Lincoln's second breakdown came after a long period of intense work. In 1835 he had been studying law; in the winter of 1840—1841 he was trying to keep the debt-ridden State of Illinois from collapsing (and his political career with it). On top of this came a profound personal stress. The precipitating causes are hard to identify precisely, in part because cause and effect in depressive episodes can be hard to separate. Ordinarily we insist on a narrative line: factor x led to reaction y. But in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.

For Lincoln in this winter many things were awry. Even as he faced the possibility that his political career was sunk, it seemed likely that he was inextricably bound to a woman he didn't love (Mary Todd) and that Joshua Speed was going to either move away to Kentucky or stay in Illinois and marry Matilda Edwards, the young woman whom Lincoln said he really wanted but could not even approach, because of his bond with Todd. Then came a stretch of intensely cold weather, which, Lincoln later wrote, "my experience clearly proves to be verry severe on defective nerves." Once again he began to speak openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide—alarming his friends. "Lincoln went Crazy," Speed recalled. "—had to remove razors from his room—take away all Knives and other such dangerous things—&—it was terrible."

In January of 1841 Lincoln submitted himself to the care of a medical doctor, spending several hours a day with Dr. Anson Henry, whom he called "necessary to my existence." Although few details of the treatment are extant, he probably went through what a prominent physician of the time called "the desolating tortures of officious medication." When he emerged, on January 20, he was "reduced and emaciated in appearance," wrote a young lawyer in town named James Conkling. On January 23 Lincoln wrote to his law partner in Washington: "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."

This spare, direct letter captures the core of depression as forcefully as the Gettysburg Address would distill the essence of the American experiment. It tells what depression is like: to feel not only miserable but the most miserable; to feel a strange, muted sense of awful power; to believe plainly that either the misery must end or life will—and yet to fear the misery will not end. The fact that Lincoln spoke thus, not to a counselor or a dear friend but to his law partner, indicates how relentlessly he insisted on acknowledging his fears. Through his late twenties and early thirties he drove deeper and deeper into them, hovering over what, according to Albert Camus, is the only serious question human beings have to deal with. He asked whether he could live, whether he could face life's misery.

Finally he decided that he must. Speed recorded the dramatic exchange that began when he came to Lincoln and told him he would die unless he rallied. Lincoln replied that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die. Yet, he said, he had an "irrepressible desire" to accomplish something while he lived. He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and "so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man." This was no mere wish, Lincoln said, but what he "desired to live for."

II. Engagement

In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live. Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character.

The melancholy did not go away during this period but, rather, took a new form. Beginning in his mid-thirties Lincoln began to fall into what a law clerk called his "blue spells." A decade later the cast of his face and body when in repose suggested deep, abiding gloom to nearly all who crossed his path. In his memoirs the Illinois lawyer Henry C. Whitney recounted an afternoon at court in Bloomington, Illinois: "I was sitting with John T. Stuart"—Lincoln's first law partner—"while a case was being tried, and our conversation was, at the moment, about Lincoln, when Stuart remarked that he was a hopeless victim of melancholy. I expressed surprise, to which Stuart replied; 'Look at him, now.'" Whitney turned and saw Lincoln sitting by himself in a corner, "wrapped in abstraction and gloom." Whitney watched him for a while. "It appeared," he wrote, "as if he was pursuing in his mind some specific, sad subject, regularly and systematically through various sinuosities, and his sad face would assume, at times, deeper phases of grief: but no relief came from dark and despairing melancholy, till he was roused by the breaking up of court, when he emerged from his cave of gloom and came back, like one awakened from sleep, to the world in which he lived, again."

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