President Lincoln’s Moods
The Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York
Reference Number: GLC00245
Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005)
“Lincoln was a curious – mysterious – quite an incomprehensible man,” wrote William H. Herndon shortly before he died. As Lincoln’s longtime law partner and longtime wannabe biographer, Herndon knew whereof he spoke. In this book, writer Joshua Wolf Shenk uses Herndon and others to try to explicate one of the most inexplicable parts of Lincoln’s character – his melancholy and occasional deep depressions.
Lincoln’s emotional life has long been shrouded in mystery. Even for those who regularly observed and interacted with him, Abraham Lincoln remained an enigma. Sometimes, a impenetrable fog seemed to settle around him that even close friends could not penetrate. At other times – such as after the death of friend Anne Rutledge in 1835 or the “Fatal First” of January 1841, Lincoln sunk into a deep depression which deeply worried his friends and led in 1841 to aggressive medical treatment which probably made him worse.
The President’s moods shielded his inner self from public inspection, noted historian Allen C. Guelzo in Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President: “Behind the affability, there remained both the pervasive sense of melancholy and a distinct reserve that not even his closest friends and proteges could dispel or penetrate. ‘With all his awkwardness of manner, and utter disregard of social conventionality that seemed to invite familiarity, there was something about Abraham Lincoln that enforced respect,’ wrote Donn Piatt. ‘No man presumed on the apparent invitation to be other than respectful.’ Henry Clay Whitney also found that there was in Lincoln ‘an indefinable something that commanded respect.’ It was a respect that invited, and sometimes even indulged, treatment as an equal, or even as a ‘brother.’ But that ‘something’ also provided a curtain that the respectful found themselves unable and unwilling to penetrate.”1
Friend Orville H. Browning recalled: “He had his moods like other men. He was sometimes jolly and genial, and gain at other times absorbed and abstracted – but these alternations were only manifestations of his constitutional temperament – they came and went irregularly. He was sometimes mirthful and sometimes sad, but both moods quickly passed away and left him always the same man.”2
But on occasions, Lincoln’s raw inner self shown through the outer reserve. Shenk quotes from a woebegone letter Lincoln wrote to Congressman John Todd Stuart in late January 1841: “I am not the most miserable man living. If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. 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, it appears to me.”3
“Lincoln’s melancholy never failed to impress any man who ever saw or knew him. The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature,” wrote William H. Herndon in his biography of his law partner.4 Shenk’s book examines both Lincoln’s predilection to melancholy and his reliance on humor to offset that mood.
Like Lincoln’s humor, Shenk’s book focuses on the story. He wrote toward the end of his book that “the essence of this story is that it is a story, not a theory or a principle or a program. It unfolds over time, through peaks and valleys, with conflict and change.”5 He pays a good deal of attention to Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, a fellow Kentuckian who ran a Springfield general store, above which the two men lived. Their story – and the similarities of their psychological makeup – provides much of the insight into how Lincoln felt during his thirties and how he struggled to overcome his insecurities and depression. Even in his advice to his friend, Lincoln reveals himself “I tell you, Speed, our forebodings, for which you and I are rather peculiar, are all the worst sort of nonsense,” he wrote in 1842.6
Shenk observed that “Once Speed got married, and reported to Lincoln that he was indeed feeling better, the tone of Lincoln’s letters changed dramatically. For months he had countered his friend’s gloom, assuring him that he would be all right and that the future would treat him kindly. No, though, the vigilant, relentlessly consoling persona washed away. Hearing that Speed had decided to take up the plantation life on land that he had inherited outside Louisville, Lincoln bemoaned, ‘How miserably things seem to be arranged in this world. I f we have no friends, we have no pleasure; and if we have them, we are sure to lose them, and be doubly pained by the loss…’”7
Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with the state of things was further reflected several years later when as a Congressman, he wrote his wife: “In this troublesome world, we are never quite satisfied.”8 Dissatisfaction drove him out of politics a year later and in 1854, dissatisfaction with politics drove him back into the political world. Misery seems to drive him – to either withdraw from the world or to enter back in. Melancholy was an obstacle to Lincoln’s success, but it was also a building block for it.
Citing again Lincoln’s 1841 letter to Stuart, Shenk wrote “This is what it’s like: to feel not only miserable, but the most miserable; to feel a strange, muted sense of awful power; to believe plainly that either the misery must end or life will – and yet to fear the misery will not end….The fact that he spoke thus, not to a counselor or dear friend but to his law partner, indicates how relentlessly he insisted on acknowledging his fears.”9 Shenk focuses on the long poems that Lincoln wrote – including a recently discovered one on suicide. These poems give insight into his personality and moods. One that has attracted much attention is about the insanity of a young Indiana friend, Matthew Gentry. Lincoln scholar Douglas L. Wilson wrote that “It qualifies as an important event because the poem attests that Lincoln himself, as a young man, was personally affected by the case of Matthew Gentry’s madness, even to the extent of slipping away from home in the middle of the night in order to listen to the strange music made by the moaning of his schoolmate….Given the young Lincoln’s dread of disorder and the discovery that he had acute emotional vulnerabilities that could get the better of him, it seems to me highly likely that one version of the ‘terrible end’ that the young Lincoln constantly feared was that he might become, like Matthew Gentry, suddenly and unaccountably mad.”10
In the face of such incidents and his own episodes of depression, Lincoln rallied with difficulty and determination. Lincoln, according to Shenk “developed diligence and discipline, working for the sake of work, learning how to survive and engage. Without the discipline of his middle years, he would not have had the fortitude to endure the disappointments that his great work entailed. In the third stage, he was not just working but doing the work he felt made to do, not only surviving but living for a vital purpose.”11
In contrast to Shenk, Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin downplayed the impact’s of Lincoln’s moods in Team of Rivals. She wrote that “with the exception of two despondent episodes in his early life…there is no evidence that he was immobilized by depression. On the contrary, even during the worst days of the war, he retained his ability to function at a very high level.” According to Goodwin, “Lincoln possessed an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness. Indeed, when he is compared with his colleagues, it is clear that he possessed the most even-tempered disposition of them all. Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor.12
With the exception of the period of his troubled courtship with Mary Todd, Orville H. Browning maintained, “There was never any other occasion to my knowledge, in the whole course of his life which gave the least indication of any aberration of mind.” Rather, long-time colleague Browning told John G. Nicolay, “he was always a man of very uniform character and temper. He had his moods like other men. He was sometimes jolly and genial, and gain at other times absorbed and abstracted – but these alternations were only manifestations of his constitutional temperament – they came and went irregularly. He was sometimes mirthful and sometimes sad, but both moods quickly passed away and left him always the same man.”13
For Lincoln, as Shenk shows, the struggle with depression was a continuing one, not one to be overcome but endured. Shenk wrote that “as Lincoln advised a grumbling general who felt humiliated at having only three thousand men under his command, ‘Act well your part, there all the honor lies.’ He who does something at the head of one Regiment, will eclipse him who does nothing at the head of a hundred.’ Two decades before he wrote these words, after the winter of a great depression, Lincoln understood doing something to be as simple as going to work, or just making preparations for it, which he gamely advised Joshua Speed to do if his ‘mind were not right.’ In the small battles of life, brushing one’s teeth, taking a walk – these can be movements in preparations.”14
Lincoln wrote the daughter of an Illinois officer who had been killed in battle: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.” But he a more optimistic note born of sad experience: “You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say…” President Lincoln understood depression – and he understood how to work through it.15
Shenk concludes: “The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there, and all that it continues to take.”16
Shenk argued: “Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted for as an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is not a story of transformation but one of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy. The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”17 According to Shenk, “The qualities associated with his melancholy – his ability to see clearly and persist sanely in conditions that could have rattled even the strongest minds; his adaptations to suffering that helped him to be effective and creative; and his persistent and searching eye for the pure meaning of the nation’s struggled – contributed mightily to his good work.”18
Review by William Lee Miller, Washington Post Book World, October 2, 2005:
“…by treating Lincoln from this angle, Shenk does gain a dimension that not all Lincoln books achieve. Looking at his subject’s darkness also means approaching his depth. Shenk deals well with the recently discovered Lincoln poem on suicide (‘Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,/And this the place to do it’); with Lincoln’s alleged homosexuality, and with Lincoln’s humor, a not-so-easy topic that the author tackles with the seriousness it deserves.”
More on the Author
Shenk is a writer whose work on Abraham Lincoln has appeared in, the American Prospect, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and TIME. His website is Shenk.net
- Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 164.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 2 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Todd Stuart, January 23, 1841).
- William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, p. 480.
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, p. 212.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joshua F. Speed, February 25, 1842).
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, pp. 94.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, April 16,, 1849).
- Gabor Boritt, editor, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 33 (Douglas L. Wilson, “Young Man Lincoln”).
- Gabor Boritt, editor, The Lincoln Enigma, p. 33 (Douglas L. Wilson, “Young Man Lincoln”).
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, pp. 213-215.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. xvii.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, pp. 2-3 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, p. 214.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862).
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, p. 215.
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, p. 156.
- Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, p. 189.