Overcoming Obstacles: How Abraham Lincoln Defeated Depression
Recognized as one of our country’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln is well known for his impressive accomplishments, including preserving the union during the Civil War and signing The Emancipation Proclamation into law to end slavery. But he is less known for his ability to overcome a significant and ever-present obstacle in his life—clinical depression.
Lincoln’s humble beginnings—famously born in a small log cabin—also included a history of depression. Both his parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, are believed to have also suffered from it. Though there are many factors related to it, researchers say that a vulnerability to depression can be inherited, which may have been the case with Lincoln.
By studying Lincoln’s own letters and the observations of his friends and associates, historians have concluded that Lincoln battled with chronic depression for much of his life. In fact, it wasn’t something Lincoln hid from his friends or the public. Even amidst the enthusiasm and excitement of the 1860 Republican convention in Illinois, an observer called Lincoln “one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw.” He had spells that his friends described as “melancholy,” sometimes spoke of suicide and described the world as “hard and grim.”
In 1841, Lincoln sought a doctor’s help for his depression. It isn’t known what type of treatment he received, but he later told his law partner, “I am now the most miserable man living… Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not.” According to Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, at times Lincoln’s behavior exhibited many of the symptoms of a major depressive episode, including change in appetite, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide.
Fortunately for Lincoln and the country, he learned to defeat depression and he maintained a healthy attitude about it. “A tendency to melancholy….,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault.” The unfortunate stigma surrounding depression and mental illness that exists today was not as prevalent in Lincoln’s day.
In fact, Lincoln’s depression may have actually aided his election to president. In his book, Shenk argues that Lincoln’s melancholy made him more approachable and sympathetic to the public, who saw his depression as “an intriguing aspect of his character, and indeed an aspect of his grand nature.”
As is the case with many who strive to overcome major difficulties in life, Lincoln’s struggles with depression may have made him a better man and even played a role in his success. Below are some of the coping methods Lincoln employed to defeat his own depression, and they can still be effective today:
Finding a Purpose
Since Lincoln’s depression included frequent thoughts of suicide, he was always aware of his mortality. It became important to him that he accomplish something of importance before he died. And focusing on a higher purpose gave him a reason to live even when he felt as if we wanted to die. “Adhere to your purpose,” Lincoln wrote to Quintin Campbell in 1862, “and you will soon feel as well as you ever did.” Lincoln’s goal to end slavery and preserve the union eventually became his central goal and purpose. Lincoln defeated depression by focusing intently on this goal.
Lincoln clearly had a sad demeanor. As his law partner, William Herndon, said, “his melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” But he also had a witty sense of humor. Telling funny stories and making jokes seemed to give him relief from his sadness. Lincoln said, “If it were not for these stories—jokes, jests, I should die; they give vent—are the vents of my moods and gloom.” His humor could be good-natured or more pointed. In just one example, Lincoln is said to have called a new congressman into his office saying, “Come in here and tell me what you know. It won’t take long.” Often humor can mask a person’s struggle with depression, as has been true with many of today’s popular comedians such as Robin Williams, who battled severe depression and recently took his own life. Like Lincoln, Williams, too, found solace in humor. “Every time you get depressed,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in 1996, “comedy will be there to drag [you] out of it.”
Lincoln had a love of learning and reading, which he used as a distraction from his melancholy. He especially loved Shakespeare and poetry. Though Lincoln had very little formal education, he always enjoyed reading and was said to have walked miles as a young man to borrow a book. William Lee Miller described him an avid reader, “reading while walking down the street, reading under a tree, reading while others went to dances…reading between customers in the post office, reading snatched at length on the counter of the store.” His retreat into books likely boosted his literary and remarkable writing skills, leading to his composition of The Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous and critically acclaimed speeches in history.
Cultivating Humility and Faith
Despite attaining the country’s highest office, Abraham Lincoln had a sense of humility and did not have a problem with ego. He was open to learn from others and even appointed former adversaries to positions on his cabinet. His humility allowed him to accept his own failures and not be threatened by the success of others. So his moods were not affected by his own success or failures. Lincoln also used his faith to bolster him in times of hardship and depression. His belief in a higher power gave him the ability to let go when his sense of responsibility became too great. “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go,” Lincoln once said. “My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.”
Lincoln is one of many public figures who are now believed to have battled mental disorders, including Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy (depression), Ludwig Von Beethoven, Winston Churchill and Vincent van Gogh (bipolar disorder), and Michelangelo (autism).
Abraham Lincoln’s great and varied accomplishments are even more impressive in light of the fact that he had to overcome the obstacle of severe depression. As Booker T. Washington, a man directly impacted by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, put it, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome while trying to succeed.”
Elizabeth Street is a writer and managing editor for Learning Liftoff. For the past 20 years, she has written newsletter and website content for nonprofit and corporate organizations on such topics as the plight of children of prisoners worldwide, the lack of prenatal care for mothers in developing countries, and child mentoring programs. She has a particular interest in the importance of providing all children with a quality education regardless of their family’s financial status or background. A native of Virginia, Elizabeth is a graduate of James Madison University and loves animals, with particular fondness for her two cats, Oscar and Emmy.