The greatest president of the United States of America Abbrham Lincoln suffered from bouts of “melancholy” throughout his life. The symptoms of his so-called “melancholia” are today termed as clinical depression. Abraham Lincoln is a unique case in psychology who was both chronically vulnerable to paralysing melancholy and the strongest man in the history.
It began at a young age of 24 years when he lost his fiancee Ann Rutledge to typhoid. Lincoln “neither ate nor slept and his mind wandered from its throne.” wrote William H. , Lincoln’s law partner. “His heart, sad and broken, was buried in her grave,” Herndon, added. Lincoln lamentably confided in a friend: “I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often of her now.” Her death caused him a nervous breakdown, and friends even said he spoke of suicide. It took a few years for him to recover from this grief.
The second bout of depression set in him in the winter of 1840-41 when he broke his engagement with Mary Todd, daughter of a wealthy Lexington, Ky., slave-holding family who supported the South during the Civil War. But Marry remained a firm Unionist. Marry and Abraham shared common interest in politics and literature and were deeply in love. The engagement broke down because Marry’s family was not in support of her marriage to Abraham Lincoln, who was nine years older to Marry and came from a poor background. However, later the couple got married in 1842.
A Life Full of Griefs and Losses
The entire personal life of this great leader was full of loss and grief. Linolin lost his mother at the age of nine. He never shared a good relationship with his father. In later life, “Three of the four boys born to the Lincolns [Abraham and Marry] died before they were 19; both parents [Abraham and Marry] experienced depression following these devastating losses. Only Robert, their first-born child, lived to adulthood” (Allan B. Schwartz, 2016).
Marry Todd Lincoln had a “high-strung personality, shopaholic tendencies and an interest in some offbeat ideas, but she also showed herself to possess a keen mind and wit”. She was a staunch supporter of her husband’s political pursuits and assisted him in every possible way she could. “Mary Todd Lincoln was emotional and outspoken and spent lavishly during a time when budgets were tight to fight the Civil War”, which made her very unpopular in the White House.
On April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was assassinated she was sitting next to him at Ford’s Theatre. Marry could not recover fully from the shock and fell into deep depression.
Lincoln was a highly ambitious man. But his ambition and sufferings were tied up together. Despite suffering from bouts of melancholy he gets his law degree and went ahead in political life. The break up of engagement with Marry Todd made him grief and “he was absent from the Illinois state legislature from January 13th to 19th due to illness which was most likely due to melancholy. Lincoln wrote a letter to John T. Stuart, his first law partner. In the letter, Lincoln stated: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. 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.” However, he married marry Todd after a few years.
A Face Without Smile
People close to him often noticed his sadness and dejected face. William Herndon, Lincoln’s third law partner, described Lincoln as follows: “He was not a pretty man by any means, nor was he an ugly one; he was a homely man, careless of his looks, plain-looking and plain-acting. He had no pomp, display, or dignity, so-called. He appeared simple in his carriage and bearing. He was a sad-looking man; his melancholy dripped from him as he walked. His apparent gloom impressed his friends, and created sympathy for him – one means of his great success. He was gloomy, abstracted, and joyous – rather humorous – by turns; but I do not think he knew what real joy was for many years… The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature.”
Robert L. Wilson served in the Illinois legislature with Lincoln. Regarding Lincoln’s gloominess, Wilson wrote:”In a conversation with him about that time (1836), he told me that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, still he was the victim of terrible melancholy. He sought company, and indulged in fun and hilarity without restraint, or stint as to time. Still when by himself, he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket. As long as I was intimately acquainted with him, previous to the commencement of the practice of the law, he never carried a pocketknife, still he was not a misanthropic. He was kind and tender in his treatment to others.”
Lincoln could shift from a happy state to a gloomy one very quickly. Fellow attorney Jonathan Birch said of Lincoln in court, “His eyes would sparkle with fun, and when he had reached the point in his narrative which invariably evoked the laughter of the crowd, nobody’s enjoyment was greater than his. An hour later he might be seen in the same place or in some law office near by, but, alas, how different! His chair, no longer in the center of the room, would be leaning back against the wall; his feet drawn up and resting on the front rounds so that his knees and chair were about on a level; his hat tipped slightly forward as if to shield his face; his eyes no longer sparkling with fun or merriment, but sad and downcast and his hands clasped around his knees. There, drawn up within himself as it were, he would sit, the very picture of dejection and gloom. Thus absorbed have I seen him sit for hours at a time defying the interruption of even his closest friends. No one ever thought of breaking the spell by speech; for by his moody silence and abstraction he had thrown about him a barrier so dense and impenetrable no one dared to break through. It was a strange picture and one I have never forgotten.”
Lincoln developed a tremendous ability to cope with his depressive mood and compensate for whatever depression afflicted him. He became more skillful at this later in life in handling depression. He continued to use various means to overcome his depression like humor, fatalistic resignation, or even religious feelings. These methods supported him fight off the possibility of “depression” or “melancholia” interfering with his work as President. He innovatively used humor and story-telling as a method of fighting depression. To a large extent, Lincoln’s success as president was a journey of his successful understanding and management of depression and creative use of suffering therefrom.
Abraham Lincoln is a unique example that how one can overcome a major disability to rise to the pinacle of success and lead a great country. Depression is a challenge which can be overcome and progressed in life.