Abraham Lincoln's bout with Depression

Abraham LincolnAccording 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 existence.

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 how?"

"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 time.

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 of death."

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 life?

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 fragile Lincoln.

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 he loved.

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 the surface.

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; etc.

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 stood for.

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 this.

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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