How Lincoln came to terms with depression


By Joshua Wolf Shenk, Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages     

Drawing on a wealth of his own research and the work of other Lincoln scholars, Shenk reveals how the sixteenth president harnessed his depression to fuel his astonishing success. Lincoln found the solace and tactics he needed to deal with the nation’s worst crisis in the “coping strategies” he developed over a lifetime of persevering through depressive episodes and personal tragedies. With empathy and authority gained from his own experience with depression, Shenk crafts a nuanced, revelatory account of Lincoln and his legacy, and in the process unveils a wholly new perspective on how our greatest president guided America through its greatest turmoil. 

In this biographical study of Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Wolf Shenk explores the lifelong melancholy which characterized Lincoln’s personality and how Lincoln harnessed it to achieve greatness. Drawing on primary source material, such as the many oral histories from Lincoln’s contemporaries, as well as on current biographies and research into depression, Shenk argues that Lincoln fits the profile of a depressive, both in conformity with the DSM, or by the standards of Lincoln’s own time. Shank presents evidence that Lincoln had suicidal thoughts, and examines “the actual events of his life and the framework that he and his contemporaries applied to his condition.” Shenk draws comparisons to the melancholy that was said to inform creative souls, such as writers, poets, and painters as he states that Lincoln’s unique ability to integrate his melancholic humors helped him achieve greatness.


     From his mid-20s, Abraham Lincoln was recognized by his closest friends as a person afflicted with melancholia, called today depression, whose lowest points were so intense that they had to take razors away from him and even lock him up to protect Lincoln from injuring himself. In the early 1840s, he suffered a second attack of depression that set him permanently on a pattern of illness which left Lincoln under the daily care of a doctor for a period and subject to the medications of the time, including cocaine, mercury, camphor and sarsaparilla.

     His friends would watch as he would sit quietly in a corner, far far away from the levity and good times around him. Some say that the causes of these two episodes were intense work, problems with women and the sad harshness of the weather. But actually, we do not know what causes depression — Lincoln’s, Churchill’s or other people’s. 

     He went on to become successful as a state politician and then as a corporate lawyer, and in the late 1840s, he totally devoted himself to making money and avoiding politics. But with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1850, Lincoln clearly saw that slavery would become a national institution, sweeping across the republic, and he made a career out of exposing its moral hollowness. Time and time again, audiences saw the tall, sad-looking speaker, and were so transformed by his personal outrage on the issue of slavery that he became a compelling figure in the new Republican party. 

     Lincoln used humor, ribald stories, epigrams and the Bible as ways to draw off the poison of melancholy, and those efforts gave him a warm and even beloved temperament. He was not a religiously orthodox man, but he believed in Fate, denied that man could be redeemed, thought that human improvement on earth was still possible, and insisted that determined effort could help him control armies and some events. 

     Lincoln’s melancholy did not seem so out of form considering the turmoil of his presidency. Because of the terrible carnage, he was viewed as responding appropriately to the awful toll of the war. So his sad-looking face, his quizzical and distant glance, his eloquent skepticism were not seen as nihilistic expressions of depression, but as the expected response of a man who was sensitive to the loss of human life and raised in the frontier shadows of dark Calvinism. 

     Added to the deaths of his troops, Father Abraham lost two of his sons as well, one before the war and one during the war. He lived with an unbalanced Mary Todd Lincoln in a house of great depression and rancor. As she reached out to spiritualists in her grief, Lincoln read the Bible and Shakespeare’s tragedies, and sat alone in the dark pondering the great questions of purpose, death, God’s will and man’s fragility. 

     His personal triumphs as a politician and as a wartime leader gave him few feelings of success or happiness. His history of depression however gave him the tools — clarity, humor, perspective, wisdom and fellow feeling — that served him well as commander in chief. It is not that the Civil War allowed Lincoln to transcend those personality problems; instead the war ran along side his standard responses to depression learned in the past. 

     He pressed to bind up the nation’s wounds, to keep the widows and orphans of the soldiers cared for, to mend the broken warriors. And as he did all this, he too became deeply broken. He remembered the poem of his youth — why should man be proud? He died as he lived, a deeply depressed man, a sensitive soul old before his time, a clear mind who saw the nation had to change into a very different union. He was God’s instrument, but did not know what He wanted. It is better to ask if we are on His side, than claim He is on ours, he once remarked. Joshua Wolf Shenk, a free-lance historian who has also known depression, provides a case study of the disease, and a telling commentary on one great person’s attempt to learn to live with it — but not to overcome it. 

     Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency, “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”