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On Lincoln and Depression

January 7, 2009

Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote a great biography on President Lincoln titled Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Here’s a summary of the authors argument and some good snippets and quotes from Lincoln’s life.

Central Argument

Shenk’s book is both a biography of Lincoln as well as an analysis of depression and a history of how the public has defined and dealt with it.  Shenk argues that Lincoln used his depression to fuel his creative thoughts and political leadership that drove him to forceful action to successfully lead the Union, end the Civil War, and provide a framework and source of inspiration for continued American success.  Shenk’s argument is well researched and readable.  I recommend it to anybody interested in learning about the undercurrent of what made Lincoln who he was, as well as food for thought on how to think about how depression may be just as much a personality asset as it is a debilitating illness.

Perhaps our culture shouldn’t think of depression as an “illnesses to be cured and kept quiet,” but rather as a different (and volatile) set of personality traits–driven by brain chemistry– that can add a great deal of texture, complication, creativity; and in many cases material contribution to our society through political, business, artistic, literary, and scientific leadership.  Consider a short list of historical depressives: Vincent Van Gogh, Issac Newton, Princess Diana, Ernest Hemingway, Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allen Poe, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Stephen Hawking, Thomas Jefferson, Florence Nightingale, George Patton, Theodore Roosevelt.

Can you imagine the American literary cannon without Hemingway or Poe?  When would we have understood gravity without Newton?  What would the landscape of classical music look like without Mozart or Beethoven?  Would America even be the country it is today without the leadership of Jefferson, Roosevelt, Patton, and most certainly Lincoln?

Depression as an Asset

Shenk outlines a interesting fact that depression (called melancholia before and during Lincoln’s era) was not a taboo or publicly embarrassing illness as it is today.  In fact, most people thought of depressives as more creative, capable of assessing reality, and born to lead.  Below are a few quotes from the book illuminating Shenk’s argument.

Aristotle on Melancholia

Aristotle writes: “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by the diseases arising from black bile?  Many such men [referring to Plato, Socrates, and others] have suffered from diseases which arise from this mixture in the body…In any case, they are all, as has been said, naturally of this character.”

Lincoln’s Time

“In Lincoln’s day , melancholy could be a valuable aspect of a man’s life…It signified an existential unrest, a gloomy or morbid state that lurked in the background of ones’ life, but also a connection to insight and a drive for heroic action.”

Academics on Depression

Peter Kramer writes: “Throughout history, it has been known that melancholics, though they have little energy, use their energy well; they tend to work hard in a focused area, do great things, and derive little pleasure from their accomplishments.  Much of the insight and creative achievement of the human race is due to the discontent, guilt, and critical eye of dysthymics.”

Lyn Abramson and Lauren Allow developed an experiment in 1979 suggesting depressives have what they termed “depressive realism.” This realism enabled them to make good decisions, often better decisions than their optimistic peers which is possible one reason why we see so many of our great leaders and creative minds do have depressive personalities.  Kyla Dunn summarizes: “Previously, depressed people were believed to be drawing conclusions about themselves and their experiences that were unrealistically distorted towards the negative.  Yet as this research suggests, one cognitive symptom of depression may be the loss of optimistic, self-enhancing biases that normally protect healthy people against assaults to their self-esteem.  In many instances, depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people, and not finding it a pretty place.”

What people said of Lincoln:

William Herdon (Lincoln’s law partner): “He was a sad looking man–gloomy–and melancholic.

O.H. Browning (fellow lawyer and politician): Lincoln had a “constitutional melancholy” and was subject to “fits of despondency.”

James Lemen Jr. (fellow lawyer): Lincoln had “a settled form of melancholy, sometimes very marked, and sometimes very mild, but always sufficient to tinge his countenance with a shade of sadness, unless a smile should dispel it, which frequently happened.”

Mary Ownens (a woman Lincoln courted): “In many things, he [Lincoln] was sensitive to a fault.”

Horace White (reporting for the Chicago Tribute after Lincoln’s debate with Stephen Douglas said of Lincoln ): “It was a marked face, but so overspread with sadness that I thought that Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois…His speaking went to the heart, because it came from the heart.  Mr. Lincoln’s eloquence was of the higher type, which produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself.  His listeners felt that he believed every word he said, and that like Martin Luther he would go to the stake rather than abate one jot or title of it.

Lincoln: a Fatalist Destined for Greatness

From a young age Lincoln commented that he believed he was created to make great contributions to humanity–long before it seemed possible.

Lincoln’s partner O.H Browning said of Lincoln: “He believed that there was a predestined work for him in the world…Even in his early days he had a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or even possible…While I think he was a man of very stern ambition, I think it had its origin in this sentiment, that he was destined for something nobler than he was for the time engaged in.”

Lincoln wrote himself in his first published speech: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.  Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”

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