Lincoln’s Melancholy

I finished a great book on Abraham Lincoln last week. If you are interested in history in general, and Lincoln in particular, or mental health, or just mid-19th century American culture, you will enjoy this book.

It is “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

Some tidbits and insights that I found interesting:

  • The Courting Scene: being engaged was serious, more like being “betrothed” in Bible days. Breaking an engagement would not only cause shame and create a scandal, but could also lead to legal action.
  • Lincoln had two serious breakdowns/funks: one around the time Ann Rutledge died and in 1841 when his political career was floundering and he broke up with Mary Todd.
  • Melancholy wasn’t necessarily considered a negative attitude during his day, just one of many personality types with advantages and disadvantages. “Even political rivals who knew the worst of (his depression) didn’t see the melancholy as a knock on Lincoln.” A newspaper article after he was elected president referred to instances when his friends worried that Lincoln might commit suicide, but the newspaper framed it as an example of someone overcoming those issues.(167)
    • Compare that to today when anyone who had similar or lesser mental health issues probably wouldn’t be elected to high offices. Shenk cites two politicians in the 1960s and 1970s whose careers were hurt by the fact they had seen therapist or been treated for a nervous breakdown.
  • At one point in Lincoln’s life, he decided to no longer carry a pocket-knife, so that it would not be available for suicide.
  • “Modern observers tend to see him as a man of little experience but solid character who faced a crisis and rose to great political heights of practical and moral power. But many of his contemporaries saw a decent but ill-equipped man who collapsed into incompetence in the face of overwhelming events.” (178)
  • His mother died when he was young, then a sibling, then his sister died during childbirth. While president, he and Mary Todd lost a child.
  • Mental Illness ran in his family. He had an uncle and cousins who spent time in a sanitarium.
    • His widow also spent the later years of her life in a sanitarium.
  • Humor and poetry were two hobbies of Lincoln’s that helped him to cope.
  • Reading about common treatments for depression in that day was scary. Bleeding, Mercury, Quinine, purging and fasting were among the treatments and usually made the person worse.
  • Two lines of scholarship on Lincoln can be traced to his friend and fellow lawyer, William Herndon on one hand, and his widow, Mary Todd on the other. Herndon emphasized Lincoln’s undying love for Ann Rutledge as pivotal and a source of his mood. Of course, Mary Todd didn’t want any of that.

I could include a lot more. If you have questions, ask. If you are half-way interested, get a copy. Great read!

Final thought for discussion. In the pages dealing with how Lincoln’s depression didn’t hold him back politically the author makes this statement: “Somehow anything short of constant cheer has come to be perceived as a violation of the American religion.” (167) He also refers to the public and media perception of Howard Dean as angry or edgy in the last Democratic Primaries.

Do you think this statement is accurate of our society? Do you think it is a good thing? What about for Christians?

Shenk uses the term “depressive realism”. Sometimes the pessimist is right, or at least more accurate. Ignorance truly is bliss for some.


One thought on “Lincoln’s Melancholy

  1. Michael

    You’d probably like a new book called The Case of Abraham Lincoln for a balance on Lincoln’s moods. Quite fascinating. It follows him through the campaign of 1856, which is when he faced the decision to join the Republicans, and with his work as a lawyer in one big case and a lot of pathetically little ones. It shows the ups and the downs, like anybody’s life has ’em.

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