"I am now the most miserable man living," the 31-year-old Lincoln confessed. "Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better."
Depression was a constant throughout Lincoln’s adult life. He never overcame it. He never rose above it. His life was one long unceasing litany of sorrow.
“No element of Mr Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.’ His law partner, William Herndon, said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”
Yet, contends Joshua Shenk in his outstanding new book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, the same force that disrupted his life and nearly ended it also imbued him with a transcendent quality that changed the world.
Lincoln’s first major depressive episode coincided with the death of Anne Rutledge in 1835 when he was 26. According to one account, Lincoln bore up to Anne’s death fairly well. Then came heavy rains that seemed to unnerve him. He took to walking the woods alone with a gun and talking of suicide. One concerned couple took him in for a week or two.
Five years later, in the winter of 1840-41, Lincoln was felled by a depression that confined him to his bed. A number of stressors had converged upon him at once: miserable weather, an on-again-off-again relationship to Mary Todd, news that his best friend Joshua Speed would be moving away, an onerous workload as a lawyer, and a bankrupt Illinois state government that cast Lincoln – then serving on the legislature – as a political scapegoat.
Joshua Speed told Lincoln that if he did not rally he would die. Lincoln replied he was not afraid to die, yet he also confessed that he wished to accomplish something meaningful first, a thought that may have saved his life. Twenty years later, Lincoln would remind his friend of that conversation.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that would extend slavery in the new territories, and Lincoln found a cause. Taking the moral high road revived his political career and set him on an improbable path that resulted in his election as President in 1860. Strangely enough, Lincoln’s depression – public knowledge – was not considered a political liability.
The nation faced the gravest crisis in its history, headed up by a man with no executive experience, but a lifetime of living with depression prepared Lincoln for the task. He possessed both the intestinal fortitude and the moral will. And the insights he had acquired from a lifetime of sorrow seemed to connect him to a higher power.
Soon after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Joshua Speed would pay a visit, and Lincoln would remind him of their conversation some twenty years earlier. "I believe in this measure my fondest hopes will be realized," he confided to his friend.
His last days were filled with a transcendent lightness of being. Sainthood beckoned, martyrdom awaited. Then he belonged to the ages.
Also, read Deborah Gray's blog about Lincoln on My-Depression.com.
Published On: February 09, 2006
Living With6 Chronic Condition Guidelines to Live By
Facing the challenges5 Rules for Bipolar Relationships