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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The hunch of old Romantic poets—that gloom coexists with potential for insight—has been bolstered by modern research. In an influential 1979 experiment two psychologists, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, set up a game in their lab, putting subjects in front of a console with lights and a button, with instructions to make a particular light flash as often as possible. Afterward, asked how much control they had had, "normal," or nondepressed, subjects gave answers that hinged on their success in the game. If they did well, they tended to say they'd had plenty of control; if they did poorly, very little. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and deflected the blame for poor scores.

But the depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether or not they had done well, they tended to believe that they'd had no control. And they were correct: the "game" was a fiction, the lights largely unaffected by the participants' efforts.

According to the dominant model of depression, these findings made no sense. How could a mental disease characterized by errors in thinking confer advantages in perception? Abramson and Alloy pointed to a phenomenon called "depressive realism," or the "sadder but wiser" effect. Though psychiatry had long equated mental health with clear thinking, it turns out that happiness is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies. "Much research suggests," Alloy has written, "that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people's perceptions and judgments are often less biased."

Of course, whether such "less biased" judgments are appreciated depends on the circumstances. Take a man who goes to a picnic, notices only ants and grass stains, and ignores the baskets full of bread and wine. We would call him a pessimist—usually pejoratively. But suppose a danger arises, and the same man proclaims it. In this instance he is surely more valuable than the optimist who sits dreamily admiring the daisies.

In 1850s America an old conflict over slavery began to take on a new intensity, and in 1854 Lincoln joined the fight. That year Senator Stephen A. Douglas engineered the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in a large swath of the Northwest, and laid down a policy of "popular sovereignty," which delegated slavery policy to local voters. To Lincoln the new policy was a Trojan horse, an ostensibly benign measure that in fact would stealthily spread slavery through the nation. He thought the conflict must be engaged. "Slavery," he said, "is founded in the selfishness of man's nature—opposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow."

In Douglas, whom he battled repeatedly through the 1850s, Lincoln faced a preternatural optimist, who really thought that moral and practical choices about slavery could be put off forever. In October of 1854, in a preview of their epic debates four summers later, Lincoln squared off against him in Springfield, Illinois. The physical contrast between the two men underlined their temperamental differences. Douglas stood five feet four inches, a foot shorter than Lincoln, and seemed packed with charisma. He had penetrating eyes and dark hair that he styled in a pompadour. Lincoln was not just tall and gaunt but a truly odd physical specimen, with cartoonishly long arms and legs; he looked as if he wore stilts under his trousers. He spoke with a kind of high-piping voice, but at the pace of a Kentucky drawl. Before he rose to speak, he looked, wrote a reporter named Horace White, "so overspread with sadness that I thought that Shakespeare's melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois."

The melancholy mattered because his observers could sense the depth of feeling that infused Lincoln's oratory. Others could hit all the right notes and spark thunderous applause, but Lincoln's eloquence "produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself," White explained. "His listeners felt that he believed every word he said, and that, like Martin Luther, he would go to the stake rather than abate one jot or tittle of it."

Opposing the extension of slavery on moral grounds but conceding its existence as a practical necessity, Lincoln found himself in an unenviable spot. To supporters of slavery he was a dangerous radical, to abolitionists an equivocating hack. His political party, the Whigs, was dying off, and a new organization—which eventually took shape as the Republicans—had to be built from scratch out of divergent groups. But Lincoln stayed his course with an argument that reached the primary force of narrative. The United States, he said, had been founded with a great idea and a grave imperfection. The idea was liberty as the natural right of all people. The flaw—the "cancer" in the nation's body—was the gross violation of liberty by human slavery. The Founders had recognized the evil, Lincoln said, and sought to restrict it, with the aim of its gradual abolition. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence, with its linchpin statement that "all men are created equal," was meant to be realized, to the greatest extent possible, by each succeeding generation. "They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society," Lincoln said, "which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for … even though never perfectly attained."

This political vision drew power from personal experience. For Lincoln had long applied the same principle to his own life: that is, continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained. Individuals, he had learned from his own "severe experience," could succeed in "the great struggle of life" only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement. This attitude sustained Lincoln through his ignominious defeats in the 1850s (he twice lost bids for the U.S. Senate), and it braced him for the trials that lay ahead. Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.

creativity. On February 25, 1860, Lincoln stepped off a train in Jersey City, New Jersey. He claimed his trunk, made his way to a crowded pier, and caught a ferry to Manhattan Island, where in two days he would deliver a speech in the Cooper Union's Great Hall. It was the chance of his career—an audience before the lords of finance and culture in the nation's media capital. But when Lincoln arrived on the island and called on a Republican colleague, he wore a "woe-begone look" on his face and carried a dour message: he said he feared he'd made a mistake in coming to New York and that he had to hole up and work on his speech. "Otherwise he was sure he would make a failure."

Lincoln's literary prowess is as well appreciated as any aspect of his life; like so many of his rhetorical efforts, his stand at Cooper Union would be a triumph. On February 27 more than 1,500 people filed into the Great Hall. As soon as Lincoln began to speak they were engrossed, and by his closing line—"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it"—they were spellbound. "No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience," said the next day's New York Tribune.

Yet Lincoln afterward seemed impervious to the praise. "No man in all New York," said Charles Nott, a young Republican who escorted him back to his hotel, "appeared that night more simple, more unassuming, more modest, more unpretentious, more conscious of his own defects." Nott saw Lincoln as a "sad and lonely man."

The link between mental illness and creativity is supported by a bevy of historical examples—Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, and William T. Sherman, among many others from Lincoln's time alone, suffered from mood disorders—and a wealth of modern research. Many studies have found higher rates of mood disorders among artists, and the qualities associated with art among the tendencies of mentally disordered minds. But the dynamic is a curious one. As the psychologist and scholar Kay Redfield Jamison has written, "There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to 'normal' individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically 'sicker'—that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology—and psychologically healthier (for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength)."

With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength—these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln's self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence. His despair lay under a distinct hope; his overwhelming melancholy fed into a supple creative power, which allowed him not merely to see the truth of his circumstances but to express it in a stirring, meaningful way. The events in New York help illustrate the basic progression: Wariness and doubt led Lincoln into a kind of personal crisis, from which he turned to work. Afterward he largely turned aside acclaim to return to wariness and doubt, and the cycle began again.

After Lincoln's election as president in November of 1860, the troughs of despair became deeper, and the need for creative response became all the more intense. Now his internal questions of self-worth and his abstract feelings of obligation were leavened by direct responsibility for the nation in a crisis of secession, which led soon after his inauguration to war. The trouble fell hard on him. The burdens of his office were so great, he said, "that, could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive."

Observing Lincoln in an hour of trial, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that he was unsteady but strong, like a wire cable that sways in storms but holds fast. In this metaphor we can see how Lincoln's weakness connected to a special kind of strength. In 1862, amid one of many military calamities, Senator O. H. Browning came to the White House. The president was in his library, writing, and had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Browning went in anyway and found the president looking terrible—"weary, care-worn, and troubled." Browning wrote in his diary, "I remarked that I felt concerned about him—regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering." Lincoln took his friend's hand and said, with a deep cadence of sadness, "Browning I must die sometime." "He looked very sad," Browning wrote. "We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes." A clinician reading this passage could easily identify mental pathology in a man who looked haggard and distressed and volunteered morbid thoughts. However, one crucial detail upsets such a simple picture: Browning found Lincoln writing—doing the work that not only helped steer his nation through its immediate struggle but also became a compass for future generations.

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