Lincoln’s Melancholy

I’m eagerly anticipating seeing the new Lincoln film later this week, having been a huge fan of the man for many years. From all I’ve read and heard about the movie, it’s a splendid evocation of Lincoln and his era.

A young Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons image)

A number of years ago I gave a sermon about Lincoln, one that contains some information on an aspect of his life that I think is key to understanding him: his deep melancholy. I’ll blog again after I see the film, but in the meantime perhaps these comments might prove interesting for those of you who are also fans of the Man from Springfield (and if you want to read a wonderful book about this topic, get a copy of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness):

You probably already know a quite a bit about Lincoln, but one aspect of his story may not be familiar to you. In particular, I want to tell you about a gift that Lincoln possessed, the gift of melancholy. Melancholy—which is related to what we would call depression—was both a blessing and a curse to Lincoln. I think the story of how he bore that affliction, and of how it deepened his character and faith, holds some lessons for us today.

From a young age, Lincoln often experienced deep emotional pain.  Part of it was the result of early losses, including the death of his mother when he was nine.  But much of his melancholy seems to have been an inborn personality characteristic.  Many of his contemporaries commented on the pervasive sadness that hung about him.  Artist Francis Carpenter said of him, “I have [commented] repeatedly to friends that Mr. Lincoln had the saddest face I ever attempted to paint.” A fellow lawyer who knew Lincoln for many decades thought that “no element of Mr. Lincoln’s character was so marked, obvious, and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

Historians believe that Lincoln suffered at least two major episodes of depression.  The first came in his 20s, the second in his early 30s.  Both times, his friends feared that he might commit suicide.  At one point Lincoln wrote in a letter to a friend, “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.”

The question of how Lincoln’s religious faith helped him with his melancholy is a complicated one.  By the standards of the day Lincoln was not a conventional Christian, though he was a lifelong student of scripture.  When he was growing up, in fact, the Bible was one of the few books he owned. Lincoln memorized long passages from it, words that would later form the basis for some of his most eloquent speeches and writings.  He wrestled with scripture throughout his entire life, questioning and pondering it and seeking within its pages answers to his troubles.

While Lincoln occasionally attended a Presbyterian church in Springfield, he never officially joined any church and was skeptical of much of the religious piety of his day. But as Lincoln suffered one loss after another, his religious faith underwent a transformation. One son died at the age of three. Another son died at the age of 11 when Lincoln was president. His marriage was troubled. Several close friends were killed in the Civil War. During his years in office he was criticized relentlessly in the press and by fellow political leaders, as many questioned his judgment and lack of political experience. And of course during the war there was the relentless drumbeat of casualties and deaths, on a scale unparalleled in American history.

So how did Lincoln bear it? How did a man who had already suffered two major depressions cope with such strain, surely the greatest that any president has had to bear?  He bore it in part with humor—Lincoln was legendary for his wit and laugh—but mainly he bore it by turning inward and by meditating deeply on the ways of God. He rejected the easy platitudes of those on both the North and the South who said that God was clearly on their side in the war. He came to see the Civil War, in fact, as a penance for the sin of slavery, a penance that had to be borne by both the north and the south equally. Most of all, he came to believe that the ways of God were inscrutable, but that he himself had a role to play in the enactment of God’s divine plan.

Lincoln never ceased to suffer from that deep sadness that had haunted him from the time he was young. Most people would have been broken by what he had to endure, both in his personal life and in his public role. But somehow his lifetime of pain was transformed into humility, vision, and a deep charity of spirit. In the furnace of his suffering, the dross was consumed and what remained, finally, was a kind of transcendent wisdom.

Why should we care about the life of Abraham Lincoln today? One reason, I think, is that his story is a reminder that in our greatest weakness can also lie our greatest strength.  Lincoln’s melancholy deepened and transformed him. His suffering was his teacher. Without it, he would not have been the great leader that he was.

One of the final images of Abraham Lincoln (Wikimedia Commons image)

If you tour the Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois, you’ll see the high-tech, impressive new museum that tells the story of his life. But for me, the most moving part of my visit came in the Old State Capitol, the place where Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech and where he lay in state after his death. At the end of our tour of the building, the guide showed us two sets of photographs. The first set was of a young Lincoln and of his political rival Stephen Douglas, also as a young man.  Douglas was handsome and debonair, Lincoln awkward and ungainly.

The guide then showed us pictures of the two men after the passage of three decades. Douglas’ face had hardened and grown colder. It was the face of a man who had spent his life pursuing power and influence. And then the guide held up a picture of Lincoln, taken just days before his death.  Looking at that face, you can see in its deep lines the traces of so many deaths and so many sorrows.  But Lincoln also radiates a hard-won peace. That face is a parable in itself, is it not?

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9 Replies to “Lincoln’s Melancholy

  1. Thank you, Holy Rover, for this sensitive rendering of Lincoln’s dark journey. His paradoxical triumph, by virtue of the same melancholy which verges to destroy him, calls to my mind Flannery O’Connor’s pithy observation, “Evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” Lincoln’s life testifies to is a truth occluded in our own milieu by the escarpment of mobility, convenience, and anesthesia: We learn to endure by enduring. It also testifies, no doubt, to the power of the biblical scriptures to sustain.

  2. It was my privilege to view the movie Lincoln on the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. I continue to think daily of what I saw and there ought to be a word other than “movie” that captures my experience.

    Your sermon included many of Lincoln’s gifts and capacities: humor, magnanimity, wisdom, social conscience, generosity, abiding faith, self-control, and sense of fairness. I would add empathy.

    Lincoln’s ability to understand clearly the motives and desires of enemies and friends, to viscerally experience what they were feeling and to place himself in their skin, is the foundation of every wrinkle and that “hard won-peace” etched into every pore.

    In his second Inaugural Lincoln suggests that the sin of slavery is shared by both North and South: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Lincoln’s empathy meant he literally absorbed the sadness and eternal hope of the people of the Nation.

    In our own time of such challenge and difficult issues I believe we will soon witness yet another second Inaugural that is compelling, compassionate and offers a glimpse of the possible if we simply listen, hear, then act responsibly and in good faith.

    How I would have enjoyed your sermon, Holy Rover! Thanks for posting it.

  3. I agree that our greatest suffering can help us find our greatest strength. I head a man named Andrew Solomon on NPR the other day; he is a depressive who wrote a book about that very idea called The Noonday Demon. Thank God the black dog has never laid down upon me, at least only situationally and not for long, but I want to read it because so many I love and have loved suffer from depression. I think William Styron’s book on the subject was profound, too — the name of it escapes me.

    Grand job as always, darling girl Lori.

  4. Her sermons are, indeed, wonderful. Well worth a trip north in good weather, if you were so inclined!

    My maternal grandmother seems to have had the same lifelong affliction. Married to a traveling salesman whose territory seems to have included everything but the tiny Minnesota town where his family lived, she had no outlets for her imagination and intelligence. An older cousin tells me that when she died, she was on her second round of reading every book in the public library–mostly Zane Grey adventures. Her postcards to her elder daughter evoke a good mind trapped in life circumstances she could not surmount. I’ve often wondered what would have happened to Grandma, and to Abraham Lincoln, if their cycles of melancholy could have been broken with medications and counseling available now.

    The difference between them is that Lincoln encountered circumstances that gave him a challenge worthy of his total concentration. Grandma just cried, year after year, until a car struck her on the Main Street of this tiny town when she was 55. If Lincoln had not been shot, might he have spent the waning years of his life reflecting bitterly on the price that 55,000+ soldiers had to pay to preserve the tenuous Union?

  5. I’ve been drawn to Lincoln since childhood and that magnetism continues. I can’t come within a day’s journey of any place he occupied in life without making a pilgrimage, and cannot count the number of biographies I’ve read, each as eagerly as the one before (even though they all have the same, sad ending). I’ve not, however, read Shenk’s accounting of Lincoln’s melancholy but will eagerly do so now on your recommendation, Lori. I’m sure that will be even more a “must” after viewing the film this afternoon.

  6. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron, a must-read for therapists.
    I neglected to add that Lincoln is the BEST movie I have seen, ever!

  7. A wonderful post and rich comments, and I have little to add, but memories of my first experience in Springfield. I visited in my teenage years with my family and it was then that I wanted to be a lawyer. I could barely speak for walking the same steps that he might have. My “souvenir” of the trip (we were allowed one) was a print of a Lincoln portrait. I was the only teenage girl (as far as I know) with a only posters of Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in my little room.

    Later, I was a Cub Scout leader and our summer camping trip lead us again to Spring field. I remember tears streaming down my face in the State House. I’m pretty sure I lost a little boy or two on that trip.

    I suppose I had more than a little to add but lastly, if you haven’t taken the time, and believe me it takes time, read Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I read it early on in Obama’s presidency (because he assigned it to his team, and I flatter myself as one of them) and it is worth every single page, and when you are done you will understand almost every single decision our current President has made, for good or ill. Lincoln was absolutely extraordinary in calling on the wisdom of those who opposed him, and there were many. He cajoled them into working for him and with him. It just occurred to me that today is the day, perhaps at this moment that President Obama and Mitt Romney are having lunch. For having read that book, I understand why.

  8. I agree that the movie is excellent and for me, it was also a great education. I was drawn to Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones and I came homefrom the movie and read quite a bit about that generous hearted, socially progressive man. If you didn’t see Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Colbert show talking about Lincoln, you should try to find the clip. She was great retelling a joke Abe tells in the movie. Thanks to you Lori and your loyal readers for their great comments! I was also greatly affected by William Styron’s Darkness Visible.

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