Abraham Lincoln

“Air held his breath; trees with the spell,

Seemed sorrowing angels round,

Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell

Upon the listening ground.”

~ An excerpt of a poem written by Abraham Lincoln 

I have always been a fan of President Lincoln.  While I admire him for the great statesman and brilliant leader he was, I love him for his humanity.  He is also one of the greatest writers ever to grace the craft: a poet and a philosopher with the ability to shape the consciousness of a nation.  As strange as the following may sound, every time I visit the Lincoln Memorial I feel as if I am dropping in on an old friend. He has this pathos of fatherly gentleness that once led my 10 year old brother to remark (when seeing the Lincoln Memorial for the first time):  “I wish I could climb up there and sit on his knee.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about this same connection–a connection so profound it led him to do the years of research behind his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Here is how he describes it:

 What drew me to the story of Lincoln’s melancholy at the start was a sense of connection to him as a person. This man whom I had grown up to think of as a marble statue came alive for me when I first learned about how he suffered, and how he talked about it. I wanted to learn the full story and share it with other people. [1]

Unknown Like him, I find Lincoln’s greatness all the more remarkable precisely because of his struggles, and the fact that his life began so unremarkably. While his gifts are extraordinary—even legendary–Lincoln never saw himself as, well, Lincoln. Joshua Shenk tackles this fact head-on, telling us that Lincoln actually suffered from a lifelong melancholia that at times erupted into debilitating bouts of depression. His most severe struggles with it occurred in his late twenties and early thirties as a young lawyer first building his career. His despair was then so deep and unrelenting he was driven to the brink of suicide.  His closest friends recalled this time as one in which they all watched him closely for fear he would take his own life.

During that time, Lincoln wrote his law partner a letter wherein he said:

I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth.  I must die or be better it appears to me.  I awfully forebode I shall not.  The matter you speak of on my account you may attend to as you see fit, as I fear I shall be unable to attend to business.  If I could be myself, I would rather stay here with Judge Logan.  I can write no more.

Far from a histrionic sentiment (he was never prone to that), the above was a very realistic statement as to his state of mind in pondering his life up to that point. He was contemplating very rationally the meaning of life in the face of unrelenting suffering, and at the time, no one knew what his conclusion would be.

There were other factors contributing to Lincoln’s despair during this time of his life, some of which Shenk poses as possible contributing factors.  One was the documented tendency to depression that ran in Lincoln family, and the deaths of several key people in his life.  But the book tackles bigger questions than identifiable causes to a momentary struggle.  Rather, he overarching point Shenk makes is that Lincoln’s melancholy–this “fearful gift,” (see below)–though at times severely testing him (and something that continued to be a part of his nature his entire life) also held the seeds of his greatness.

The book begins this discussion by comparing what we call “depression” today and what was called “melancholia” in the nineteenth-century:

The big difference is that today we often hear the disease of depression is entirely distinct from the ordinary experience of being sad or in the dumps. But in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, these were part of the same overall picture. A person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with both an awful burden and what Byron called ‘a fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth, wisdom—even genius.[2]

Lincoln did eventually come through that time of despair and made the choice to live, but live for something that would, as he said “redound to the benefit of my fellow man.”  He somehow found meaning in that time of darkness and came out the other side with a renewed purpose. I think what is so remarkable about this is that his story is not merely a mythic re-telling or a calculated political spin we have too much of these days.  Rather, it is the bedrock truth of an iconic man with a fragile humanity, who experienced a despair so profound he contemplated death.  Despite this (and Shenk argues that even because of it) Lincoln came out the other side of that personal abyss and rose to greatness, just when his country sorely needed him.


I find this all so comforting, so touching and inspiring that I am drawn to him, human to human: seeing him as a friend, so intimately imbedded in my personal consciousness that I feel as I if I know him.  Perhaps this is what it means to share the human condition, bound as we are to each other by the same life decisions we must all make.

While there is much more to say on this book and Lincoln’s life, I conclude with those of Joshua Wolf Shenk:

A key feature of Lincoln’s story is that in this middle stage [of choosing to move forward in spite of his depression and despair] while his labors were picayune, he kept sight of a grand potential. “It is much for the young to know,” he said in his eulogy to Zachary Taylor in 1850, “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places.”  Lincoln said this at a time when his own faith had been sorely tested—for all he knew, his dreams would come to nothing. But the faith itself led him to tread the hard path with a sense of purpose, adjusting to reality but never quite settling. He feared that he would not, but trusted that he would, finally find his way. When he did, everything he had lived through had its purpose. [3]

[1] Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholia, pp. 211-212.

[2] Ibid, p. 27.

[3] Ibid, p. 215.

Photo Sources (In order of appearance):

Photographer: Unknown. http://www.upi.com/News_Photos/Features/Abraham-Lincoln-Artifacts/fp/1518/

Book Cover, Lincoln’s Melancholyhttp://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/readers_guides/shenk_lincoln.shtml

Photographer: Mike Thomas. https://www.flickr/com/phohtos/mthomas/6785379

Photographer: Gage Skidmore. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore