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

humility. Throughout his life Lincoln's response to suffering—for all the success it brought him—led to greater suffering still. When as a young man he stepped back from the brink of suicide, deciding that he must live to do some meaningful work, this sense of purpose sustained him; but it also led him into a wilderness of doubt and dismay, as he asked, with vexation, what work he would do and how he would do it. This pattern was repeated in the 1850s, when his work against the extension of slavery gave him a sense of purpose but also fueled a nagging sense of failure. Then, finally, political success led him to the White House, where he was tested as few had been before.

Lincoln responded with both humility and determination. The humility came from a sense that whatever ship carried him on life's rough waters, he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force—call it fate or God or the "Almighty Architect" of existence. The determination came from a sense that however humble his station, Lincoln was no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do. In his strange combination of profound deference to divine authority and a willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom.

Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, once told of watching the president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. "His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad," Keckley recalled. "Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection." He had just returned from the War Department, he said, where the news was "dark, dark everywhere." Lincoln then took a small Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. "A quarter of an hour passed," Keckley remembered, "and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope." Wanting to see what he was reading, Keckley pretended she had dropped something and went behind where Lincoln was sitting so that she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of Job.

Throughout history a glance to the divine has often been the first and last impulse of suffering people. "Man is born broken," the playwright Eugene O'Neill wrote. "He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!" Today the connection between spiritual and psychological well-being is often passed over by psychologists and psychiatrists, who consider their work a branch of secular medicine and science. But for most of Lincoln's lifetime scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life.

Lincoln, too, connected his mental well-being to divine forces. As a young man he saw how religion could ameliorate life's blows, even as he found the consolation of faith elusive. An infidel—a dissenter from orthodox Christianity—he resisted popular dogma. But many of history's greatest believers have also been its fiercest doubters. Lincoln charted his own theological course to a living vision of how frail, imperfect mortals could turn their suffering selves to the service of something greater and find solace—not in any personal satisfaction or glory but in dutiful mission.

An original theological thinker, Lincoln discounted the idea, common among evangelicals, that sin could be wiped out through confession or repentance. Rather, he believed, as William Herndon explained, "that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow the sin." This view fitted with both the stern, unforgiving God of Calvinism, with which Lincoln had been raised, and the mechanistic notion of a universe governed by fixed laws. But unlike the Calvinists, who disclaimed any possibility of grace for human beings not chosen for that fate, Lincoln did see a chance of improvement. And unlike some fatalists, who renounced any claim to a moral order, Lincoln saw how man's reason could discern purpose even in the movement of a vast machine that grinds and cuts and mashes all who interfere with it. Just as a child learns to pull his hand from a fire, people can learn when they are doing something that is not in accord with the wider, unseen order. To Lincoln, Herndon explained, "suffering was medicinal & educational." In other words, it could be an agent of growth.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes of "sick souls" who turn from a sense of wrongness to a power greater than they. Lincoln showed the simple wisdom of this, as the burden of his work as president brought home a visceral and fundamental connection with something greater than he. He repeatedly called himself an "instrument" of a larger power—which he sometimes identified as the people of the United States, and other times as God—and said that he had been charged with "so vast, and so sacred a trust" that "he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow." When friends said they feared his assassination, he said, "God's will be done. I am in His hands."

The griefs of his presidency furthered this humble sense. He lost friends and colleagues to the war, and in February of 1862 he lost his eleven-year-old son, Willie. In this vulnerable period Lincoln was influenced by the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, whose Presbyterian church he attended (but never joined). In his eulogy for Willie, Gurley preached that "in the hour of trial" one must look to "Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well." With confidence in God, Gurley said, "our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, 'It is good for us that we have been afflicted.'" Lincoln asked Gurley to write out a copy of the eulogy. He would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.

Yet Lincoln never used God to duck responsibility. Every day presented scores of decisions—on personnel, on policy, on the movement of troops and the direction of executive departments. So much of what today is delegated to political staffs and civil servants then required a direct decision from the president. He controlled patronage, from the envoy to China to the postmaster in St. Louis. His desk was piled high with court-martial cases to review and military dispatches to monitor. In all his choices he had to rely on his own judgment in accordance with law, custom, prudence, and compassion. As much as his attention focused on an unseen realm, Lincoln's emphasis remained strictly on the material world of cause and effect. "These are not … the days of miracles," he said, "and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation." Lincoln did not expect God to take him by the hand. On the contrary, he said, "I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right."

Lincoln's peculiar vision of the sacred led him to defy the conventions of his day. For centuries settlers in the New World had assured themselves that they were special in God's eyes. They were a "City upon a Hill," in John Winthrop's phrase, decidedly chosen, like the Israelites of old. Lincoln turned this on its head when he said, "I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle." The country, Lincoln said, was almost chosen. Out of that phrase emerged a crucial strain of Lincoln's thinking. As others invoked the favor of God in both the North and the South, Lincoln opened a space between mortal works and divine intention. Among his papers, after his death, his secretaries found this undated statement that has come to be known as the "Meditation on the Divine Will."

The will of God prevails—In great contests
each party claims to act in accordence with
the will of God. Both may be, and one
must be wrong. God can not be for, and
against the same thing at the same time.
In the present civil war it is quite possible
that God's purpose is something different from
the purpose of either party—and yet the human
instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of
the best adaptation to effect this

After this first passage the handwriting grows shakier; the words practically tremble with the thoughts they express. First Lincoln crossed out the last word he had written.

                      His purpose. I am
almost ready to say this is probably true—that
God wills this contest, and wills that it shall
not end yet—By his mere quiet power, on the minds
of the now contestants, He could have either saved
or destroyed the Union without a human contest—
Yet the contest began—And having begun
He could give the final victory to either side
any day—Yet the contest proceeds—

Lincoln's clarity came in part from his uncertainty. It is hard to overestimate just how unusual this was, and how risky and unpopular his views often were. Most religious thinkers of the time, the historian of religion Mark Noll explains, not only assumed God's favor but assumed that they could read his will.

"How was it," Noll asks, "that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?" Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.

As his presidency wore on, his burden grew heavier and heavier, sometimes seeming to threaten Lincoln's sanity. The war consumed a nation, dividing not only the two opposing sections but, increasingly, the northern states of the Union. Emancipation became a reality, which only inflamed the conflict. Lincoln became increasingly isolated. But he continued to turn from his suffering to the lessons it gave him. Throughout his term he faced the prospect of humiliating defeat, but he continued to work for just victory.

Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point' before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains." Lincoln's melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Presented by

Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of the forthcoming book Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Houghton Mifflin), from which this article is adapted.

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Playing An Actual Keyboard Cat

A music video transforms food, pets, and objects into extraordinary instruments.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

Video

The Man Who Built a Forest Larger Than Central Park

Since 1979, he has planted more than 1,300 acres of trees.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In