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

In one sense these spells indicate Lincoln's melancholy. But they may also represent a response to it—the visible end of Lincoln's effort to contain his dark feelings and thoughts, to wrestle privately with his moods until they passed or lightened. "With depression," writes the psychologist David B. Cohen, "recovery may be a matter of shifting from protest to more effective ways of mastering helplessness." Lincoln was effective, to a point. He worked well and consistently at his law practice, always rousing himself from gloom for work. He and Mary Lincoln (whom he had wed in 1842) had four boys. He was elected to a term in the United States Congress. Yet his reaction to this honor—he wrote, "Though I am very grateful to our friends, for having done it, [it] has not pleased me as much as I expected"—suggested that through booms and busts, Lincoln continued to see life as hard.

Indeed, he developed a philosophical melancholy. "He felt very strongly," said his friend Joseph Gillespie, "that there was more of discomfort than real happiness in human existence under the most favorable circumstances and the general current of his reflections was in that channel." Once a girl named Rosa Haggard, the daughter of a hotel proprietor in Winchester, Illinois, asked Lincoln to sign her autograph album. Lincoln took the book and wrote,

To Rosa
You are young, and I am older;
      You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grows colder—
      Pluck the roses ere they rot.

At a time when newspapers were stuffed with ads for substances to cure all manner of ailments, it wouldn't have been unusual for Lincoln to seek help at a pharmacy. He had a charge account at the Corneau and Diller drugstore, at 122 South Sixth Street in Springfield, where he bought a number of medications, including opiates, camphor, and sarsaparilla. On one occasion he bought fifty cents' worth of cocaine, and he sometimes took the "blue mass"—a mercury pill that was believed to clear the body of black bile.

To whatever extent Lincoln used medicines, his essential view of melancholy discounted the possibility of transformation by an external agent. He believed that his suffering proceeded inexorably from his constitution—that, in a phrase he used in connection with a friend, he was "naturally of a nervous temperament." Through no fault of his own, he believed, he suffered more than others.

Some strategies in response were apparent. As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle." When he was off duty, two things gave him most relief. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.

Consider his favorite poem, which he began to recite often in his mid-thirties. It was in one sense, as a colleague observed, "a reflex in poetic form of the deep melancholy of his soul," and in another a way to manage that melancholy. One story of his recitations comes from Lois Newhall, a member of the Newhall Family troupe of singers. During an Illinois tour in the late 1840s the troupe encountered Lincoln and two colleagues, who were traveling the same circuit giving political speeches. They ended up spending eight days together, and on their last they sat up late singing songs.

As the night wore down, Lincoln's colleagues started pressing him to sing. Lincoln was embarrassed and demurred, but he finally said, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you. You girls have been so kind singing for us. I'll repeat to you my favorite poem." Leaning against the doorjamb, which looked small behind his lanky frame, and with his eyes half closed, Lincoln recited from memory.

O[h] why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a swift, fleeting meteor—a fast-flying cloud—
A flash of the lightning—a break of the wave—
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high
Shall molder to dust and together shall lie.

Lincoln first came across the poem in the early 1830s. Then, in 1845, he saw it in a newspaper, cut it out, and committed it to memory. He didn't know who wrote it, because it had been published without attribution. He repeated the lines so often that people suspected they were his own. "Beyond all question, I am not the author," he wrote. "I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is." When he was president Lincoln learned that the poem had been written by William Knox, a Scotsman who died in 1825.

The last two verses of the poem were Lincoln's favorites.

Yea! Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

'Tis the wink of an eye, 'tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

When Lincoln finished, the room was still. "I know that for myself," Lois Newhall recalled, "I was so impressed with the poem that I felt more like crying than talking." She asked, "Mr. Lincoln, who wrote that?" He told her he didn't know, but that if she liked, he would write out a copy of the poem for her. She was eating pancakes the next morning when she felt something behind her. A great big hand came around her left side and covered hers. Then, with his other hand, Lincoln laid a long piece of blue paper beside her.

III. Transcendence

In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.

clarity. Some people, William Herndon observed, see the world "ornamented with beauty, life, and action; and hence more or less false and inexact." Lincoln, on the other hand, "crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham"—Everything came to him in its precise shape and color." Such keen vision often brought Lincoln pain; being able to look troubling reality straight in the eye also proved a great strength.

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Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairsforthcoming from Eamon Dolan Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

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