Most historians believe Abraham Lincoln struggled throughout his life with bouts of melancholia, the term used for depression during his time.
He had to find behavioral remedies because there were no antidepressant medications.
Lincoln’s upcoming birthday on Feb. 12 reminded me to offer my perspective about how he coped with his depression and his wife’s bipolar tendencies. Among the many books and articles I’ve read about Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was a particular inspiration, as was Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, “Lincoln.”
Both Goodwin and Joshua Shenk, in his 2006 book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, indicate Lincoln’s first serious episode of depression likely occurred in 1835 when he was 26 years old. The woman he was courting, Ann Rutledge, died, probably of typhoid fever.
Lincoln had lost the three women to whom he had become closest during his young life: his mother, his sister and now, Ann. Goodwin reports in her book neighbors of Lincoln noticed he became desperately sad during dark, gloomy days; they feared he might become deranged if he didn’t pull himself together.
Some 20 months later Lincoln moved to Springfield, to practice law in the town that became the Illinois capital; his mood was brightening.
According to Goodwin and Shenk, Lincoln’s second serious bout of depression occurred in 1840-41. Lincoln earlier had met Mary Todd, a vivacious, intelligent socialite some nine years younger than him. They were attracted to each other despite their opposite personalities, or perhaps because of that.
Mary and Abraham became engaged after several months of courtship and set their wedding date. The winter before they were to be married, Lincoln became deeply troubled; the couple broke off their engagement.
It isn’t clear what precipitated the breakup, but Lincoln’s best friend, Joshua Speed, wrote years later that probably Lincoln felt he didn’t deserve Mary. Was Lincoln affected by the previous losses of women to whom he became close, and determined to not put himself into a situation where he could get hurt again?
Joshua was Lincoln’s landlord; they shared the same double bed. It was not unusual for men to bunk together because living and sleeping accommodations were few in that era. They lived in a room above Speed’s general store. Customers often gathered for conversation at the store and to enjoy Abe’s stories.
Sharing long nights together, whether in front of the fireplace or in bed, enabled the men to become fast friends who knew each other’s intimate thoughts. There is nothing of record that indicates Lincoln and Speed engaged in anything other than friendship.
According to Shenk’s book, after ending plans to marry, Lincoln became despondent to the point he could not work, ate little and spent days and nights listless and brooding. Worried about Lincoln taking his own life, Speed removed knives and other sharp instruments from their home.
Retreat from social interactions, loss of interest and pleasure, little desire to eat, feelings that one does not deserve something good, crying spells, utter hopelessness and thoughts of suicide – these behaviors are symptoms of depression.
With the encouragement of his best friend, Lincoln forced himself to engage in opposite behaviors. As the weather warmed, he took walks outside as his roommate encouraged. The two men talked frequently and told jokes again, although Lincoln’s humor was probably self-deprecating.
Both Goodwin and Shenk wrote that Lincoln drove himself to affiliate with people, even when he felt more like sinking into despair in his room.
Lincoln wrote letters and talked to his acquaintances when he didn’t feel like it.
Lincoln made himself work. He prayed intensely to use these experiences to make himself a better person. Gradually, the future president’s spirits lifted. He began to think more clearly and asked Mary some 18 months later to marry him.
What Lincoln had gone through shaped his personal life and presidency. As the movie “Lincoln” portrays, the 16th president gently but firmly urged his wife to curb her excessive purchases during manic episodes. He conveyed understanding to Mary when their son, Willie, died and explained how their oldest son, Robert, needed to make his own decision about joining the Union Army.
Most importantly for the welfare of our nation, Lincoln forgave the slavery and insistence upon independence demanded by the Southern states that temporarily formed the Confederacy.
He modeled appreciation for diversity, compassion for those suffering and the need to undertake reconciliation, which probably contributed to his own assassination – but enabled the United States to get through its greatest rupture.
Coping with depression gave him fortitude and skills to deal with our nation’s problems. President Abraham Lincoln provided us not only humane political leadership through an era of utmost civil turmoil, but he also taught us about managing our behavioral health.
I often use his example to teach farm people whom I counsel about coping with depression.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D. serves on the adjunct faculty of the University of Iowa, lectures across the United States and abroad and owns a row crop farm in Harlan, Iowa. He is also a founding partner of the nonprofit network AgriWellness, Inc.
Send your thoughts and questions to him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org – previously published columns are available for a small fee 30 days after they were originally printed, at www.agbehavioralhealth.com