Lincoln struggled with depression. What we can learn from it today

March on Washington Outside Lincoln Memorial (Getty Images)
March on Washington Outside Lincoln Memorial (Getty Images)

While researching a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln that, please God, I’ll live long enough to see published one day, I stumbled onto a fact unfamiliar to many: Lincoln quested all his adult life for a modus vivendi with debilitating, even suicidal depression.

A friend of mine inferred his sorrow from his haunted eyes in old photographs. The written recollections of Lincoln’s contemporaries, while dated in their less-than-sensitive language, remove any need for inference. “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” his law partner recalled, the near-universal observation among acquaintances.

As an Illinois legislator in 1841, the future president — his political career imperiled by a state debt crisis, while a brutal winter frayed his admittedly “defective nerves” — drowned in despondency. In the words of his best friend, “Lincoln went crazy. I had to remove razors from his room — take away all knives and other such dangerous things." The episode marked the second time in six years that neighbors stood suicide watch, the first triggered by Lincoln’s talk of self-destruction after fever killed his friend Ann Rutledge.

Premature death stalked his intimates. At age 9, he helped whittle his mother’s coffin. He lost his sister when she was 21; one son shy of 4, and a second at 11.

I’d admired Lincoln for beginning the abolition of enslavement and federal help for the needy. Learning that he did so when rising out of bed could be an ordeal by itself transformed admiration to awe, and Lincoln to greater relevance this Presidents Day. The holiday arrives amid a years-old pandemic of deteriorating mental health among young people, accelerated by the stress of that other pandemic. Soaring numbers of teenaged girls report endemic sadness that a Centers for Disease Control doctor declares a “crisis.”

I hope my book, should it ever emerge from in utero, will reassure the millions of anxious and depressed young people that those feelings needn’t define them. The 16th president’s coping strategies offer a light in the dark of fear and sorrow.

Start with his neighbors’ ministrations, which show that he sought help from others. The CDC endorses Lincoln-type “connectedness” -- “a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging” — corroborated by data from surveys of high schoolers. During his first suicidal musings, Lincoln’s friends kept an eye on him; one couple took him into their home for a couple of weeks until his spirits lifted.

Another of Lincoln’s coping mechanisms embraced a virtue typically unrecognized as such: ambition, which imbued him with a sense of purpose to keep depression at bay. "I have no other [desire] so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem," he declared. With scant formal schooling, he self-educated. Voracious reading led his childhood neighbors on the frontier, prizing only manual labor, to write him off as lazy. Wrong. Lincoln marched through progressively better jobs as relentlessly as Sherman marched to the sea, ultimately succeeding at law and politics.
Nothing in his day was more estimable than fighting for abolition. The Emancipation Proclamation did not complete that moral imperative. Yet it’s the reason behind today’s Juneteenth celebration, and for Lincoln, it was his personal Appomattox, his passion’s triumph. "I believe in this measure my fondest hopes will be realized,” he rejoiced.

Today, even ambitions short of changing the world can be therapeutic for youth. I watched our high schooler flourish during remote learning by (parent brag alert) indulging his Audubon Society-honored bird photography. His experience isn’t unique. A study of almost 30,000 middle schoolers found that extracurricular activities were “associated with higher levels of satisfaction with life and optimism, and lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

“Now he belongs to the ages.” As do his lessons for our children.

Some whose moral lens glimpses the past solely through 21st-century standards deem Lincoln unfit for admiration. His hatred of enslavement didn’t translate into supporting full equal rights for African Americans. “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races,” he declared in 1858. He warred to save the Union, not exterminate slavery.

But those who stop there miss Lincoln’s final lesson. His “defective nerves” didn’t shame but rather humbled him, empowering him to confess error and grow. Lincoln took seriously Frederick Douglass and other critics who insisted that Union alone couldn’t justify four years’ carnage; that required abolishing the country’s proverbial original sin. Hence the president’s end-of-life, partial walk-back of his 1858 position and support for limited Black suffrage. Hardly a Black Lives Matter advocate. But no one knew Lincoln’s shortcomings better than Lincoln. Modern therapists channel his humility when they help patients accept their failings and embrace mistakes as wisdom gained.

Tolstoy was wrong; unhappy families can be unhappy in the same way. My family’s experiences with mental illness surely will resonate with others. As a child, I listened to angry quarrels between my parents and a bipolar aunt. Another aunt required inpatient care after an unhappy marriage and divorce. I have relatives who experienced homelessness and a breakdown that required police to defuse.

It saddens me that medicine couldn’t cure their illnesses. It angered me when one denied that they needed help. But Lincoln understood two hard truths: A cure isn’t always necessary to a meaningful life, and denial hurts the denier. Those insights gave him an “irrepressible desire” to live despite his pain, sparing him death by his own hand. Killing him required an assassin's bullet, prompting Secretary of War Edward Stanton’s reported requiem: “Now he belongs to the ages.” As do his lessons for our children.

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Headshot of Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.



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