In 1841, Abraham Lincoln wrote that he “ … was now the most miserable man living. If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth.”
It had been a bad year for Lincoln. His political career was in shambles; he’d been a public advocate for a government program which had plunged the state into deep debt. His personal life was in ruins; he’d just broken off with his fiancée, Mary Todd. He started talking about suicide, and his friends removed the razors and knives from his room, fearing the worst.
Lincoln had struggled with melancholy his entire life, or what would be called depression today. When his first love died, Lincoln fell into such despair that his friends kept watch over him, fearing he would kill himself. Lincoln confessed that he never carried a knife, for fear of succumbing to his dark thoughts.
Lincoln’s hard life added to his burdens. His mother died when he was nine, his sister died when he was 19, three of his four children died young, and he was defeated several times in his political career.
And yet, Abraham Lincoln also taught himself the law, and was eventually admitted to practice in the US Supreme Court. He rose to become the 16th President of the United States, led the Union to victory in the American Civil War and abolished slavery in the doing.
In the same letter that he declared he was the most miserable man alive, Lincoln also wrote, “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.”
And Abraham Lincoln did become better. But how? How did Lincoln reconcile these disparate parts of himself — the leader and the fatalist — to become one of the greatest American presidents in history? That’s what I wanted to know as I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy.
Lincoln accepted his melancholy
Shenk makes the point that Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded to be one of the greatest presidents in American history, couldn’t be elected president today. His melancholy, which Lincoln never sought to hide, would be seen as an unacceptable weakness.
But Lincoln never considered his melancholy a personal fault, and neither did his fellows.
You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer, and don’t know a cloud from a star. I am of another temperament. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln knew he had a “nervous temperament,” but he believed that a melancholic nature was “a misfortune not a fault,” not to excise but to live with.
In Lincoln’s time, people subscribed to the belief that people belonged to four personality types, and that each brought along particular strengths and weaknesses. Lincoln believed that he had a melancholic nature, which was prone to depression and moodiness, but could also be thoughtful and diligent.
Lincoln’s contemporaries often mentioned the gloom that shadowed Lincoln, but they didn’t think it made him less capable. A newspaper story, written by a member of Lincoln’s political rivals, described Lincoln’s first breakdown, but not to disparage him. Instead, it was to make the point that anyone could triumph through adversity, as Lincoln had.
Lincoln found ways to cope with his melancholy
But accepting his melancholy didn’t mean that Lincoln allowed himself to be swallowed by it. Instead of trying to rid himself of his melancholy, he found ways to cope with it.
Lincoln liked to tell stories, jokes and recite poetry. The jokes gave him the laughs needed, he said, for his survival, while the maudlin poetry provided an outlet for his weariness. He became aware that poor weather, isolation, idleness and stress brought out the worst of his moods, so he steeled himself for them.
But if I couldn’t tell these stories, I would die. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln found purpose and meaning
While Lincoln could plunge into the depths of despair, he also felt an “irrepressible desire” to do something with his life. He dedicated his later years and his presidency to abolishing slavery, and when his country fell into civil war, to preserving its Union.
I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle; I would immediately engage in some business, or go to making preparation for it, which would be the same thing. Abraham Lincoln
It was a mission that took a severe toll on Lincoln. After a year and a half of bloody fighting and heavy losses, Lincoln’s face “darkened with particular pain,” and he would moan in anguish in his office. He couldn’t sleep, and his face looked hopeless and deathly. His political opponents attacked him, declaring him unqualified for the presidency, and there were even rumours of a coup in the capital.
The death of his third son, William Wallace Lincoln, in the first year of the war, compounded Lincoln’s anguish. Lincoln was heavy with grief at his passing, crying, “It is hard, hard to have him die.”
Near the end of his first term as president, Lincoln was widely seen as a failure. The war had dragged on for more than three years, and victory was nowhere in sight. Lincoln wrote that it was “exceedingly probable” he would not win the next election.
But Lincoln’s purpose pulled him through those dark times. As he declared in a speech three months away from the end of his first term:
We have, as all will agree, a free Government, where every man has a right to be equal with every other man. In this great struggle, this form of Government and every form of human right is endangered if our enemies succeed. There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was more than his melancholy
Today, we’re perpetually sold on the personal power of positive thinking. If you’re gloomy, it’s simply because you’re not thinking the right thoughts. If you’re down in the dumps, then you simply need to pick yourself up.
And if you still fail to join the ranks of optimists, well then, something must be wrong with you.
As Shenk tells it, Abraham Lincoln’s story shows us that there’s more to it than that. Lincoln was plagued by a melancholy that never went away, and it caused him great amounts of suffering throughout his entire life.
While we shouldn’t make light of depression or romanticise it, Lincoln shows us that any individual is more than his melancholy.
While Lincoln was a fatalist pessimist, he was also an assiduous idealist, who believed strongly in doing what he felt was morally right, and was willing to devote great energy to abolishing slavery. He changed the course of history and freed millions from bondage.
As someone who’s prone to melancholy myself, I found great relief when I read in Lincoln’s Melancholy how Lincoln and his colleagues accepted his melancholy for what it was. That it was okay to be this way, that you could struggle with “blue spells” and still be a capable member of society.
Shenk makes the argument that Lincoln not only found ways to cope with his anguish, but that Lincoln’s experience facing the darkness within helped him cope when he led his country to face its darkest moments without. Lincoln never overcame his melancholy, but he was able to integrate it, and together with the whole of his personality, change his life and the world for the better.