Which is why Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy should normally send us reaching for our hats and coats. Of all of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln was clearly the most psychologically tortured and the one who wore it most plainly on his sleeve. His law partner, William Henry Herndon, once said that “melancholy” dripped from Lincoln, and the stories of people who saw in his face the gnawing of a hideous sadness are too legendary and too numerous to dismiss. Lincoln himself was more than a little self-aware of his own mental gloom: “You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer and don’t know a cloud from a star,” he told Iowa congressman Josiah Grinnell. “I am of another temperament.” But the misery people saw so plainly etched in the cadaverous hollows of Lincoln’s cheeks also offered no clue to its cause. “Lincoln was a peculiar man,” reflected David Davis, a colleague from the pre-war days in Illinois and executor of Lincoln’s estate. “He was the most reticent, Secretive man I Ever Saw or Expect to See.” Leonard Swett, who rode the circuit courts with Lincoln and later wrote Lincoln’s biographical entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica, begged Herndon to tell him “what the skeleton was with Lincoln” that “gave him that peculiar melancholy?” Herndon’s best guess was that it was wrapped up in Lincoln’s marriage to the unhappy Mary Todd. But he could do no more than guess: Lincoln “never talked much about his history, plans, designs, purposes, intents; and when a man tells you this or that about what Lincoln said, believe what you must and no more.”
Herndon’s warning has been ignored by dozens of eureka-peddlers who have, over the years, hawked one single-answer solution after another to the cloud hanging eternally over Lincoln’s head. In the case of Lincoln’s Melancholy, however, Shenk, a contributing editor of this magazine, has been able to dodge Herndon’s bullet, and largely because he has written well, he has refused to claim too much, and he has kept two ideas in front. First is the unarguable fact that Lincoln suffered from spells of depression which, at two points, brought him within range of suicide. Second, there is the equally unarguable fact that we do not know enough about Lincoln’s depression to build upon it some heroic story of crisis and recovery. Shenk has no psychobiographical theory or therapy to promote, nor does he nurture any Byronic illusions about the redemptive or creative powers of melancholy. “This is not a story of transformation,” Shenk warns, “but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy.” Depression is an illness, and people who suffer from it want just one thing–for it to stop.
Shenk is a journalist, not an academic historian. But he amasses more than enough evidence from a careful sorting of the Lincoln sources to show (a) that the Lincoln bloodlines showed a predisposition to mental grief, (b) that Lincoln’s youth and early adulthood were scarred by family deaths and personal traumas, and (c) that in his mid-to-late 20s, Lincoln reacted so badly to political and personal defeats that numerous friends and eyewitnesses were afraid to leave him alone. This never quite teetered over into bipolar or schizophrenic mental illness. “No evidence exists of mania in Lincoln,” Shenk observes. But at the same time, there is no denying that “Lincoln had major depressive episodes.” Lincoln himself frequently described his own “misery,” especially during the perfect mental storm he suffered in the early 1840s from the collapse of his first political career and his multiple romantic disappointments. What surprises Shenk the most is that Lincoln made no effort either to advertise or conceal these episodes, and suffered no political penalty for them. A presidential candidate described as “melancholic” or “depressive” would today be unelectable. Yet, said Lincoln’s fellow Illinois lawyer, Henry Clay Whitney, “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”
Lincoln survived the depressive episodes he suffered in the 1840s, but not in the way we might like to think. Each episode of depression makes the recurrence of further episodes more statistically likely, and in Lincoln’s case, depression created a sort of permanent backdrop with which he gradually learned to cope. Chronically recurring depression is like balancing tea cups–when it becomes clear it’s not going away, the result is a search for a new equilibrium. “One becomes accustomed to it, expecting such hardship and greeting it with, at best, a stoic determination,” Shenk writes, and so it was with Lincoln. Like many depressives, Lincoln was both a workaholic and a jokester, and his alternating spells of joke-telling and silent withdrawal were the visible face of his “effort to contain his dark feelings and thoughts.” Shenk believes that Lincoln never achieved “what we would call a cure,” in large measure because depression is not “a collections of symptoms to be eliminated” so much as it is a climate to which one must adapt. But the capacity for adaptation, and the stoicism that supported it, may well have been just the recipe required for the man delegated to guide the republic through the “fiery trial” of the Civil War.
Allen C. Guelzo is Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize for Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (2004).