Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness
Abraham Lincoln lived with mental illness.
It ran in his family. He experienced two major depressive episodes. His friends put him on suicide watches. He also liked popcorn, oysters, and a strong cup of coffee.
Just in time for Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 2-8), Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk is appearing in bookstores. It is more than a "stigmabusting" profile from which to draw inspiration. It is also a gripping, carefully documented narrative and scholarly social history that will alter how Americans view the formative years of our 16th president -- going well beyond tales of log cabins and splitting rails that children learn about in elementary school.
It reveals how Lincoln developed coping strategies, perspective, and a personal sense of mission in response to chronic depression, which would help him lead the Union through the Civil War.
Author Josh Shenk was a contributor to the best-selling Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and has written for The New Yorker and other publications. Part of his work on the book was supported by a Mental Health Journalism Fellowship from the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Shenk's own history of depression enriches his insights and interpretations of Lincoln's chronic illness. The Atlantic Monthly magazine features the book in its October issue. In the months ahead, he is interested in speaking to NAMI conferences and other mental health audiences. For information, contact email@example.com.
For Lincoln, learning to live with depression was a process that involved not so much transformation as integration -- a distinction still relevant in how we think about recovery today.
"Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain," Lincoln wrote in a poem in the 1850s, "are mingled together in sunshine and rain."
Lincoln considered "nervous temperament" as the general cause of melancholy, serving as a "key and conductor" for specific, triggering causes -- an assessment not unlike the concept of genetic predisposition. In a letter to a friend, he identified three kinds of specific causes: exposure to bad weather, thinking too much -- as the result of disengagement from business or friends -- or a moment of great crisis and converging conflicts requiring exhaustive focus. Lincoln's life fit the formula.
Lincoln's family history is full of evidence indicating mental illness.
His father lived with periods of gloom and withdrawal. His first cousin, Mordecai, had severe mood swings, eventually becoming paranoid. Living like a hermit, he would drop by occasionally to visit relatives. Without saying a word, he would pace the room, playing a violin, while sobbing.
In 1867, Mary Jane Lincoln, the daughter of another cousin, was committed at age 39 to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane after a trial by jury. She had been ill for 13 years and jurors found "the disease is with her hereditary." A family member called it "the Lincoln horrors."
In 1835, Lincoln experienced his first major depression. He had left home four years before, and at 26, was at an age when the onset of serious mental illness frequently occurs. Shenk acknowledges that it is difficult to identify precisely what factors may trigger a depressive episode. But Lincoln was studying law intensely and had isolated himself from friends. Fever swept the community. Death was all around. One victim was Anne Rutledge, whom some believe was the first love of Lincoln's life.
Lincoln collapsed emotionally. "That was the time the community thought he was crazy," one woman later recalled.
"He told me that he felt like committing suicide often," said a local school teacher. Lincoln began taking long walks alone in the woods, carrying a gun. His friends mobilized to keep him safe. An older couple took him into their home for two weeks, which apparently marked a turning point. Years later, Lincoln told a friend that to fight his melancholy, he learned to seek out the company of others -- and from then on he no longer dared carry a knife in his pocket.
Lincoln's second major depression in 1841 similarly occurred during a period of physical and emotional exhaustion -- and loss.
He had campaigned hard statewide for William Henry Harrison in the 1840 presidential election. Harrison won the presidency, but lost Illinois. Lincoln himself was reelected to the state legislature only narrowly, polling the fewest votes of any victorious candidate. His political star was plummeting.
Immediately after the election, Lincoln had nine cases pending before the state supreme court. He also served as floor leader for the Whig party during a special session of the legislature -- which turned into a disastrous defeat marked by considerable personal humiliation. At one point, Lincoln jumped out of a window with other legislators in order to prevent a vote). During the same time period, Lincoln broke an engagement with Mary Todd (whom he later married). His best friend was preparing to move to another state.
Friends recalled that Lincoln "went crazy as a loon" and sank into an immobilizing depression. They removed knives and razors from his room. His illness was the talk of town. One newspaper made fun of it. People wrote friends and relatives in other towns describing the meltdown.
Lincoln saw a doctor, but nineteenth century medicine was not much of a comfort. Some evidence exists that he may have taken "blue pills," containing mercury, as well as possibly opium and cocaine. For the most part, he found his therapy elsewhere: from supportive friends, writing poetry, telling stories and bawdy jokes -- provoking great laughter -- as well as painful reflection.
Six years would pass before Lincoln held elected office again. During his time in the wilderness, he also made a clear commitment to life -- a conscious, willful choice -- and more fully embraced an ambition of wanting to do something great, even if he was not sure what it would be.
Shenk observes that the first step in recovery sometimes is simply getting out of bed, out of an instinct for survival or a sense of duty. For the long haul, it involves "keeping sight of great potential."
Lincoln's melancholy stayed with him throughout his life. He was permanently sad, often withdrawing into himself. But it gave him the vision to look beyond the horrors of the Civil War toward a greater good -- beyond the nation's imperfections and dangers toward progress and redemption. Depression produced "depressive realism" reflecting a painful, but accurate view of the world that may enable a person to achieve "melancholic success" and "tragic optimism." In times of great crisis, it may be the strongest character forged for leadership.
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