to recent American Psychological Association (APA) statistics, approximately
one out of every five Americans can expect to get some form of depression,
and over one in 20 Americans have a depressive disorder every year. Depression
is one of the most common and most serious mental health problems facing
people today. Stress often triggers depression, and is a common component
of everyday life. It contributes greatly to how we perceive and contend
with day to day dilemmas. We are continuously barraged by strategies for
coping with stress; from the home-grown herbal remedies of our ancestors,
to a more contemporary and trendier approach such as daily meditation.
The concept of stress is relative, and very much a presence in our day-to-day
The synonymous terms "melancholia" and
"depression" can be defined as mental disorders, often psychotic, that
are characterized by extreme depression of spirits, brooding, and anxiety.
The term "melancholia" has been replaced in contemporary society by the
term "depression". Although our ancestors faced hardships during a different
era, it can be assumed that there were certain similar impasses that are
common between past centuries and modern society.
Since the early 1970s, "drug therapy" appears to be the route taken by
most clinicians when treating those in a depressive state. One wonders
how depression was treated prior to the use of modern drugs and more contemporary
therapeutic approaches? Jan Jacobi, in her article "Lincoln Handled Stress
the Old Fashioned Way", creates the following scenario: "Picture this.
You've just become president of the United States, the most inexperienced
man in history elected to that high office; upon your election, one-third
of your constituents head for the door calling you a "baboon" or a "gorilla."
You face the prospect of a long and bloody war that will claim 680,088
lives. You will have to fire six generals before you finally find one,
a quasi-alcoholic, who will pursue the enemy effectively. Given one military
disaster after another, you will stay up most of the night reading books
on strategy; that's not the worst thing imaginable since you won't be
able to sleep anyway. You will be vilified by both extremes; your favorite
child will die, and, as a result, your wife will temporarily go bananas.
You'll suffer from occasional bouts of melancholia, and you'll be constipated
half the time. Without Deepak Chopra or prozac to help him through, how
did Lincoln cope?"
The questions concerning the fact that
Lincoln was overcome by anxiety and depression are numerous. Despite the
overwhelming quandaries and travails dealt to Lincoln throughout his life,
it has been reported that, gradually, he learned to manage his stress.
Since intense melancholia was one of the most striking features of his
personality, the paradox remains: "Was he able to accomplish this, and
"Bipolar disorder," a diagnosis that
did not exist during Lincoln's time, can be generically defined as a mental
illness that involves episodes of serious mania and depression. The individual
experiences mood swings that range from overly high and irritable to sad
and hopeless. This affliction may revert back again, with periods of normal
mood in between. It does not appear that there are any writings or records
reflecting Lincoln experiencing high/irritable swings at the opposite
end of his hopeless ones, and there's no absolute certainty concerning
Lincoln's bouts of melancholy and what caused them. Information pertaining
to Lincoln's delicate emotional state materialized from two primary sources;
his own letters and the recorded observations of those around him at the
Michael Burlingame remarks, in his book The Inner World of Abraham
Lincoln, that the death of Lincoln's mother was responsible for his
life-long tendency to melancholy. It has also been stated that his depression
stemmed from a series of childhood losses. These deficits may have included
the death of his newborn younger brother (Lincoln was only three years
old at the time); the death of his mother, aunt, and uncle when he was
only nine years old; and the passing away of his sister in childbirth
when he was eighteen years of age. According to psychologists, bereavement
in childhood can be one of the most significant factors in the development
of depressive illness in later life.
According to historians and Lincolnia experts, Lincoln loved to laugh.
This is a true contradiction of his well-known exterior personality, for
the world's exposure to Lincoln normally displays a sullen and imposing
veneer. However, this sullen facade appears to be representative of the
'inner Lincoln'. According to Jacobi, when well-known photographers such
as Brady or Gardner took images of Lincoln, he had to hold his pose for
30 seconds or longer because a smile or a laugh would often ruin the plate.
The morose exterior was contrived for the purpose of the image.
His closet and dearest friends spoke of his jovial demeanor and the merry
expression that was often the embodiment of his face. His mirthful and
animated expression often evolved into profound and enthusiastic belly
laughter. Furthermore, his storytelling was underscored with his own laughter,
and he was known to often double up before he could get to the punch line
of the story.
According to Roger Norton, an expert on Lincolnia, there are an overwhelming
number of questions concerning Abraham Lincoln's possible mental illness
that can't possibly be answered with complete accuracy. There are a myriad
of books discussing this phenomena, and the information communicated depends
upon which book one reads. He also notes that if Lincoln actually suffered
from clinical depression, then, according to experts, its unlikely that
he could have led the nation through its greatest internal crisis.
There is no question that Lincoln was subject to periods of melancholy
throughout his life. As a young man he'd experienced the "hypo," short
for hypochondria. This was the same word used by Thomas Jefferson to describe
the depression that afflicted Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame.
Records reflect that in 1842 he wrote to his friend and confident Joshua
Speed, who was terrified by the prospect of his forthcoming marriage.
Lincoln observed that Speed's unhappiness resulted, in part, from "...
the absence of all business and conversation of friends, which might divert
your mind, and an occasional rest from that intensity of thought, which
will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness
Norton views Lincoln as a believer in the doctrine of fatalism and superstition.
His doctors concurred that Lincoln's concerns and obsessions about diseases
that he might have been stricken with turned out to be nothing more than
"hypochondria." Milton H. Shutes in his volume, Lincoln and the Doctors, reveals a letter that Lincoln wrote to a friend, Congressman John
T. Stuart of Springfield. In this letter, Lincoln alluded to the fact
that he now understood his disease; he had a diagnosis. It was known as
Hypochondriasis. It was considered a manifestation of a psychoneurotic
temperament. Fear was considered to be the dominant element, and it was
believed to be caused by overwork and worry. It was evident that he accepted
this hypochrondrism when he stated in his letter to Stuart: "I have within
the last few days been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself
in the way of hypochrondrism........."
"No element of his personality was so marked, obvious and ingrained as
his mysterious melancholy." This was stated by a close friend, Henry C.
Whitney. He also stated that such episodes were not uncommon.Whitney recalled
a story revealed to him by Lincoln's former law partner, John T. Stuart.
Stuart stated that Lincoln was a hopeless victim of melancholy, and would
sometimes sit in the courtroom, alone in a corner, and far from anyone
else. He was often described as being engulfed in gloom.
Lincoln also had been described as rising early, on a daily basis,
and sitting in front of the fire. There, he would muse, ponder, and recite
lugubrious verses. This ritual would be done with the saddest of expressions.
He also had been observed lost in thought well past the bedtime of
others, and would sit by himself for hours. He was the ultimate picture
of dejection and gloom.
Before the age of positive thinking and cognitive therapy, Lincoln learned
to live with negative thoughts and not dwell on them. What choice did
he have? The only other option would have been to succumb to these adversities.
It was not in his persona to acquiesce. So, he persevered, and served
his nation eloquently. Although the war emotionally consumed him, the
national tragedy of the Civil War provided an emotional outlet in which
he could immerse his own psyche. Conceivably, having to worry about other
people's problems took his mind off his own predicaments.
Lincoln was surrounded by chaos during the war years. He strongly embraced
one basic proposition: to preserve the Union. In his Gettysburg Address,
he asserted "a new birth of freedom." For Lincoln, the concept of a democratic
America symbolized "the last, best hope of earth." This basic, yet weighty
concept, defined the essence of this conflict: there would be no compromise.
We can't help but ask: was his approach to the war a symbiotic expression,
based on his personal approach to the idiosyncratic tragedies of his own
Lincoln's marriage to Mary Todd left much to be desired. According to
Norton, Mrs. Lincoln could have used a dose of 20th century understanding,
compassion and treatment. She was obviously not as adept as her husband,
at handling her "melancholia". It was apparent that there was constant
tension in the Lincoln's marriage. There were times when Lincoln would
stand at the window pointing towards a government psychiatric hospital
that overlooked the city. He was indicating the location of Saint Elizabeth's
Hospital, and would warn his wife that she could possibly find herself
residing there if she didn't work on her temperament. There may have been
some truth and facetiousness in this comment. Nevertheless, there were
also moments of quiet companionship. President and Mrs. Lincoln could
often be seen taking carriage rides through Washington. These cherished
outings alleviated some of the burdens. They were sometimes heard sharing
their fondest hope of returning to Springfield at the conclusion of his
presidency. Horseplay with his children was another release for the stressed
Lincoln, as well as the bonding that accompanied good, solid friendships.
Many authors and Lincoln biographers have written that Lincoln was suicidal,
based on written records and friend's observations. Others have stated
that Lincoln was saddened by the state of affairs in his life following
his relationships with Ann Rutledge and Mary Todd. Norton states that
there is truth in the fact that when Ann Rutledge died in 1835, and on
January 1, 1841, when he broke his engagement to Mary Todd, Lincoln entered
periods of melancholy. The major variance from book to book has to do
with the degree of the "depression". There was no actual proof of his
ever being suicidal, although there were some indications and concerns..
This was only speculation. Some recent writings on Lincoln have disclaimed
William Herndon's (Lincoln's law partner who wrote a biography of Lincoln
after the assassination) possible "embellished" accounts of Lincoln's
alleged suicidal tendencies.
If one views clinical depression as the type of depression that totally
disables a person from functioning in the world, then Norton believes
that Lincoln's "melancholia" was "generally a little shy of this state."
This was especially true during Lincoln's presidency, when he was amazingly
able to carry on in spite of the death of his son Willie, bitter assassination
threats, Copperheads, the huge loss of life on the battlefields, generals
who were never ready to fight, Confederate relatives of his wife, and
other phenomena that created tremendous pressure for the already emotionally
Lincoln had a tremendous ability to cope with and compensate for whatever
depression afflicted him. He became more adept at this later in life.
He continued to use various means to overcome his depression; humor, fatalistic
resignation, or even religious feelings. These approaches helped to fight
off the possibility of "depression" or "melancholia" interfering with
his work as President. Only his closest friends had any insight concerning
the extent of his condition. The remainder of the population was not aware
of his situation, for he had an amazing ability to overcome the depressive
aspect of his personality with a powerful inner strength and will. He
was innovative in his use of humor and story-telling as a method of fighting
depression, therefore creating a blinding veneer for those watching from
afar, and who were unfamiliar with his background and tribulations.
A knowledge of his background is helpful when reaching for some answer
as to why he was so overwhelmed by "melancholia." Abraham Lincoln was
born on Sunday, February 12, 1809, in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky.
He was the son of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, and he was named for
his paternal grandfather. Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter and farmer. Both
of his parents were members of a Baptist congregation which had separated
from another church due to opposition to slavery.
According to Shutes, Lincoln's hard-working and congenial demeanor earned
him the nickname of "long-legged Abe". He was discerned as being resourceful,
and had been described as "sad of eye, but with a wonderful smile, poor
in pocket and raiment but rich in personality and character."
When Lincoln was seven years of age, the family moved to southern Indiana.
He had gone to school briefly in Kentucky and did so, again, in Indiana.
He attended school with his older sister, Sarah (his younger brother,
Thomas, had died in infancy; the first of many tragedies to affect his
life). In 1818 Nancy Hanks Lincoln died from milk sickness, a disease
obtained from drinking the milk of cows which had grazed on poisonous
white snakeroot. Lincoln was only nine years old at the time. This was
an emotional shock for him, and he suffered, subconsciously, from this
event for the rest of his life. She was the one parent who understood
his desire for book-learning. Thomas Lincoln remarried the next year,
and Lincoln loved his new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln. She
brought three children of her own into the household, and there was, once
again, a family unit..
As he grew up, Lincoln loved to read and preferred learning to working
in the fields. This led to a difficult relationship with his father who
was quite the opposite. Nonetheless, Lincoln was constantly borrowing
books from the neighbors.
According to Shutes, while in his early teens, Lincoln was kicked (senseless)
in the head by a mule. When he regained consciousness, he began to experience
mild epileptic seizures (petit-mal). He became intrigued by these episodes
and the working of the brain, and often referred to this event in discussions
throughout his life.
In 1828, his sister died during childbirth. Lincoln was deeply grieved,
and a neighbor observed him sitting down in a small smokehouse on the
property, burying his face in his hands. He was sobbing as tears trickled
down his face. He often said that from that point on he felt very alone
in the world. Its been speculated that Sarah's death reawakened painful
memories of his mothers death only a decade earlier.
In 1830, the Lincolns moved west to Illinois. Afterwards he moved to New
Salem, Illinois, where he lived until 1837. While there he worked at several
jobs including operating a store, surveying, and serving as postmaster.
He impressed the residents with his character, wrestled the town bully,
and earned the nickname "Honest Abe." Lincoln, who stood nearly 6'4",
and weighed about 180 pounds. He served briefly in the Black Hawk War,
and ran, unsuccessfully, for the Illinois legislature in 1832. He ran
again in 1834, 1836, 1838, and 1840, and won all 4 times. Lincoln was
a member of the Whig Party, and remained so until 1856 when he became
a Republican. In addition to his already "full plate", he studied law
in his spare time and became a lawyer in 1836.
There have been numerous stories about Lincoln and his romance with an
attractive girl named Ann Rutledge. Sadly, Ann died in 1835. Shutes describes
the love between Ann Rutledge and Lincoln as a "beautiful but short poem
of spring flowers, hopes, plans and tragedy." In the Spring and Summer
of 1835, Ann suffered, as most settlers did, from malaria. Some old contemporaries
allude to the fact that she probably died of typhoid, since her father
also died of typhoid that summer. Her death was a tremendous shock to
Lincoln, and was prepared neither physically nor emotionally for this
trauma. It has been said that after her burial, he wandered the hills
and forests along the riverbanks. During this period of reflection, he
severed his relationship with God. He refused food, and would not sleep.
Again, his friends became concerned. He was to renew his relationship
with God later in life, as he sought relief for his on-going torment.
Experts believe that Ann's death drew out Lincoln's repressed grief over
his mother's death, and these feelings once again surfaced. He took Ann's
death unusually hard. One rainy day he told friends that he couldn't bear
the idea of it raining on her grave. He stated that death had taken his
mother and his sister, and he believed that he would always lose the women
After an unsettling year, Lincoln appeared well in body and mind. He began
a new courtship (considered half-hearted) with Mary Owen of Kentucky.
She was visiting her sister, and was introduced to Lincoln through friends.
He wrote to her of his physical ailments, and even admitted that his spirits
were quite low. This was the third recorded period of marked "depression"
in Lincoln. Sources state that a combination of his so-called illnesses
and his relationship with Mary Owens probably precipitated this particular
episode of depression. He stated that although he may have appeared to
be in better spirits, and enjoyed being with company, he was still overcome
with depression. He even revealed that he was fearful of carrying a knife
in his pocket for this reason.
After two lonely years, 20 year old Mary Todd came to town, and Lincoln
was fascinated by this witty, caustic, lovable and impulsive young woman.
She cast a spell over all of the young men. The well-known and girl-shy
Lincoln was attracted to her, and, according to Shutes, Lincoln's uncommoness
drew the fire of her interest.
They had a stormy romance and engagement. It came to a sudden end on the
day of the scheduled wedding. He called it "the fatal first of January,
1841". Lincoln was 6'4" tall, homely and gawky, and no one knew it more
thoroughly than Lincoln. He knew that he was deficient in schooling, social
grace, and poise. He also recognized the fact that he came from a poor
background. This contrasted with the fact that Mary Todd came from an
old well-to-do-family. This breakup brought many painful realities to
As a result of this breakup and a rumor that he was secretly in love with
another woman named Matilda Edwards (who spurned him), he became practically
incoherent. Joshua Speed observed that a gloom came over him, and his
friends became alarmed for his life. Speed stated that Lincoln went "crazy",
and his friends had to remove razors, knives and other such dangerous
things from his room for fear of possible inappropriate behavior.
Interestingly enough, Lincoln did not display this kind of grief when
his father passed away. The bond between them was weak, yet some speculate
that much of his depression might have been over his ambitious personality,
and his revolt against his father's wish for him to become a farmer and
not pursue an education.
Mary Todd and Lincoln were reunited by friends, and three years later
they were married. Over the next 11 years had 4 children: Robert (1843-1926),
Edward ("Eddie") 1846-1850, William ("Willie") 1850-1862, and Thomas ("Tad")
1853-1871. More children were to come; in all, a total of twelve. Heartbreakingly,
only two survived out of the twelve. In 1844, Lincoln was a successful
attorney, and the family bought a home and settled into a life that projected
some semblance of normalcy. At this time, he had already lost two of his
children; Eddie in 1850, and Willie in 1862. Willie's death was especially
hard on him, as everyone believed him to be the clone of Lincoln. He wept
convulsively over Willie's death. He was probably reminded of his mother's
death, and the great loss he suffered. With the loss of eight more children
over the years, how much more could this emotionally fragile man endure?
In 1832, he was fired with political ambition. He tried for the state
legislature, but was insufficiently known and was unseasoned. He was defeated.
This incident created a problem for him in terms of earning a livelihood,
and this became a source of depression to him. His friends also became
quite concerned over his demeanor and emotional state. This particular
incident was just one of many periods of mental depression.
Lincoln was elected the 16th President on November 6, 1860, and in February
of 1861 the Lincoln's left by train for Washington, D.C. The President-elect
was now wearing a beard at the suggestion of an 11 year old girl. Lincoln
was sworn in on March 4, 1861. After Lincoln's election, many Southern
states, fearing Republican control in the government, seceded from the
Union. Lincoln faced the greatest internal crisis of any U.S. President.
He was emotionally stricken by enormous pressures: loss of life; battlefield
setbacks; generals who weren't ready to fight; assassination threats;
Despite these obstacles, Lincoln persevered, and maintained this pro-Union
policy for four long years of Civil War. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation
Proclamation went into effect. This was Lincoln's declaration of freedom
for all slaves in the areas of the Confederacy not under Union control.
Also, on November 19, 1863, Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address
which dedicated the battlefield there to the soldiers who had perished.
He called on the living to finish the task the dead soldiers had begun.
He suffered emotional agony as he watched close friends and faceless soldiers
vanish in the butchery and indiscriminate rationale of war.
Upholding his beliefs and commitments, Lincoln suggested he would support
voting rights for certain blacks. This added to his already exiting pressures,
for many were infuriated by this pledge. One such racist and Southern
sympathizer was John Wilkes Booth, who hated everything the President
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, the Lincoln's attended a play entitled Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. During the performance Booth
arrived at the theater, entered the State Box from the rear, and shot
the President in the back of his head at about 10:15 p.m.. Lincoln was
carried across the street to the Peterson House where he passed away the
next day at 7:22 A.M. This was the first Presidential assassination in
American history, and the nation mourned its leader. His suffering and
torment ceased; he was at peace.
As his family, friends, and the world mourned the loss of this great president,
a close friend of Lincoln's recalled that once, in conversation, Lincoln
alluded to the sad, if not pitiful, condition of his father's family at
the time of the marriage to his stepmother. He stated that his father,
one year after his natural mother's death, left the children alone while
he went to Kentucky to court Sarah Bush Johnston (later his stepmother).
Initially he had planned to stay for three months. This turned into six
months. The children, after such a long period of time, assumed that their
father had been killed, and practically gave up on him. When he returned
with his new bride, he found the children with practically no clothes
on their backs, and their stomachs swollen from a lack of food. During
this time, Lincoln's sister took over the responsibilities of the household,
and a great bond developed between them. Lincoln was teary-eyed as he
conjured up memories of his sister.
Consequently, Lincoln resorted to humor when he needed to resolve the
gloom. Aware that his storytelling and joking were essential to his mental
balance. He once told his law partner Herndon "if it were not for these
stories-jokes-jests I should die: they give vent-are the vents of my moods
and gloom." He once prescribed a different set of techniques for dealing
with depression to Joshua Speed (his closest confidant): he told him to
remember in the depth and agony of despondency, that very shortly one
will feel good again. He also suggested avoiding being idle, and engaging
in some business in order to keep occupied.
According to P.M. Zall's chapter on "Abe Lincoln Laughing," from the work, The Historian's Lincoln; Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History,
Lincoln relied on his stories for contact with his people. He needed people
around him, and being personable and amusing was one way to accomplish
Lincoln's stories were living examples of people. Zall presents an example
of such an expression, where Lincoln told a story about a traveler who
was caught in a terrible rain storm. The man whipped up his horse seeking
shelter. He passed a farmhouse where a man stuck his head out the window
and yelled "HELLO! HELLO!" The traveler asked the man what he wanted.
The man replied "NOTHING!" "What in tarnation are you yelling HELLO for
when people are passing by?" "Well, what in tarnation are you passing
by for when people are shouting 'HELLO?' " Lincoln turned to laughter
to save himself.
William Herndon stated that Lincoln was sad and cheerful by turns. He
was devastated over the plight of the desperate, and often wept uncontrollably.
There were times when his sensitivity to tragedy sent him to the depths
of gloom. According to Judge David Davis, "Lincoln's stories were merely
devices to whistle down sadness." He spent a tremendous amount of time
and effort in acquiring the seemingly endless supply of stories and anecdotes
with which he delighted his listeners.
Lincoln was well known for his fondness of sad songs and poems, and he
used them as vehicles for lamenting his grief. He was often heard reciting
such refrains and verses for hours at a time, deluged in his loneliness.
He especially admired Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Last Leaf," which addressed
the death of loved ones. He was fondest of the following stanza:
The mossy marbles rest
On lips that he has pressed
In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
Lincoln's depressions have often been ascribed to heredity. He could very
well have inherited his sadness and sensitiveness from his mother. It
appears that his cousins also suffered from depression. A neighbor in
Kentucky recalled that Lincoln's father often got the blues, and suffered
from some strange sort of spells. When he suffered from these spells,
he only wanted to be alone. Lincoln, as did his father, wanted to spend
much time alone, and historians have noted that the loneliness he experienced
in his youth could have been the source of his depression. It was unfortunate
that from ages 12 to 21, there was no one in close proximity, who appreciated
the intellectual and ambitious side of this young man. Modern-day psychologists
have found that punishment in childhood has always been one of the most
powerful generators of depression in adulthood. Could it be that his father's
inhuman and cold treatment of him, along with his mother's use of corporal
punishment may have prompted Lincoln to depression?
Over the years, Lincoln was able to develop a nucleus of self-assuredness
that could carry him through the most agonizing moments of his life. Harvard
historian David Donald, in his biography of Lincoln, states: "He depended
on his inner resources. Since he couldn't change his homely looks, he
worked on his character. He learned to craft his thoughts, both as a speaker
and a writer, and the eloquence he achieved contributed to a sustaining
sense of self. As a country lawyer, Lincoln was familiar with all forms
of human depravity; in Washington it was simply on a grander scale. It
didn't surprise or shock him."
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