Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk: Summary & Notes

Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk: Summary & Notes
Photo by Josue Aguazia / Unsplash

How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness

Short Summary

Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded as one of America’s finest presidents. While he accomplished amazing things, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t due to superhuman capabilities. On the contrary, he dealt with many internal struggles. His successes are admirable, but perhaps even more so is the suffering he endured to achieve them.

Extended Notes

Abraham Lincoln was far from the perfect man we portray him as today. He struggled just like the rest of us, and perhaps to an even greater degree. Fortunately for American history, Lincoln didn’t let these struggles overtake him, but instead used them as preparation for the arduous challenges ahead.

Self Made Man

From a young age, Lincoln was a voracious learner, always reading, reflecting, and observing the world. Unfortunately, the boy’s love of learning displeased his father, Thomas Lincoln, as he would often neglect his farm work to read. In Thomas’ eyes, Abraham’s lot in life was to work with his hands like a ‘real man.’ Such hard labor was difficult for the boy because he was quite sensitive.

Around the time that Lincoln was a young man, there was a cultural shift in America surrounding the concept of self. Before, the self was an alien concept. People acted as parts of the wholes of their nations, their communities, and their families. Once the concept of the self starting gaining traction, so was introduced the concept of the self-made man. The new individual didn’t have to rely on anyone to choose him for success. Instead, as the theory goes, if one worked hard enough, smart enough, and for long enough, he would succeed in America.

To Lincoln’s dismay, this new opportunity to succeed brought with it the inherent risk of failure. It was also around this time that society started using the word ‘failure’ to describe not just events, but also people themselves. By this logic, if a man messed up, he became the failure, and not just his mistake. This idea is so entrenched in our vernacular today that we forget that calling a person a failure started as a figure of speech. In reality, a failure was a misstep, not a person. For someone as sensitive as himself, to be identified as a failure would be a huge blow to Lincoln’s self esteem. The fear of being branded with such an identity was crippling to the young man.

In sum, the same opportunities afforded to Lincoln by this new self-made culture had as much potential to shatter his fragile self image as it did to boost his confidence. This dichotomy created a tension within the young man that left him on the constant verge of a metal breakdown. In fact, it was during this period (mid-twenties) that Lincoln started to develop the ‘condition’ that would later become a hallmark of his personality. Bouts of anguish and despair were common, and his mental state was rather unstable. Indeed, he was so gloomy that his friends had to put him on suicide watch twice. In modern terms, we would say he suffered from major depression.

Depth of Reason

When he was a young man, Lincoln preached the merits of reason to anyone who would listen. He believed a measured, rational life was best. Hypocritically however, he could not control his own physical and emotional impulses, once even leaving a political opponent in tears after mocking him so terribly. While this experience left him with regret, it would take a few more years for Lincoln to develop the self control he so idolized.

By the time he was in his mid to late-thirties, Lincoln started to walk his talk. Through effort and experience, he became far more reserved. At the same time, he entered a stage of “brooding—the silent, penetrating mood of melancholy and the look that came with it.” While he was becoming more controlled in his actions, Lincoln was also becoming more somber in his disposition. It was this middle period of his life where Lincoln’s melancholy became most evident and is most notable in historical accounts.

What’s interesting is how he dealt with this depressed state. The methods he used to cope with his condition didn’t provide him an escape from, but rather a path deeper into the spiritual turbulence. Lincoln engaged in activities that intensified his emotions rather than dulling them.

He didn’t turn to drugs because they would have changed his personality and stolen his energy. He didn’t turn to any one doctor’s prescription because doing so would have been at the detriment of his own understanding of his condition. Instead, he turned to poetry. He turned to philosophy. He turned to humor. All of which forced him to dive deeper into his despair instead of turning away. One line from his poetry perfectly illustrates Lincoln’s ability to live in the tension between joy and despair, life and death: “Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain, /Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain.”

An Unlikely President

Lincoln always held onto the belief that he was destined to do something great. However, it wasn’t until decades into his career that this belief began to seem even remotely credible. The obscure Illinoisan lawyer showed little promise prior to his election. Early in his political career, he was fairly well liked and experienced a few wins, but the rest of his track record was littered with defeat after defeat. Surprisingly, he never completely lost hope that he was meant for something greater than himself.

Today, we tend to think of Lincoln’s presidency as inevitable. He is consistently revered as one of the country’s greatest presidents, and it’s scary to imagine the how history would have played out had he not taken office. During his time, however, the man was not a promising candidate.

Lincoln was regarded as an ill-equipped, if well intentioned politician by his contemporaries. Make no mistake, this reputation was not unearned. He didn’t exactly fit the mold of America’s next hero. The candidate was sensitive not dominant; he was soft-spoken, not brash. In fact, historians conject, if the secession [of the South from the Union] would have happened before his election, a very different president would have been chosen.

Popular opinion wasn’t much more favorable once he took office. People viewed the man as far too fragile, and perhaps even too incompetent to hold such a high position. Especially at the beginning of his term, he was easily overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his station.

Why then, out of all the more probable choices, was Lincoln chosen to lead the country? Obviously, there had to be some merit behind his election. It comes down to the depth of his character and the sincerity of his words. People felt that Lincoln was genuine, and they were right. Unlike politicians today, he didn’t pretend to be anything he was not. He didn’t try to look perfect, even talking openly about suicide. Such openness resonated with the masses.

While other politicians may have been more eloquent orators, they did not expose the same vulnerability as Lincoln did. They did not believe every word they said like Lincoln did. They did not have the same ability to change people’s minds as Lincoln did. When Lincoln spoke, it came from his heart. It came from his belief in some calling greater than himself. He could move people in ways that other men couldn’t because people knew he would die by his convictions.

God’s Plan

To say Abe Lincoln did or did not believe in God would be an oversimplification of the matter since he wrestled with God is whole life. As a young man, he doubted the zealous rhetoric of the Church, but would come to deeply examine this doubt as he grew older.

Early on in his career, it appears as though Lincoln merely used religious rhetoric as a mask for his unorthodox thoughts. He found it very difficult to commit to a church that was spouting what was, to his rational mind, nonsense, but outwardly admitting so would have stunted his budding political career.

This isn’t to say that Lincoln didn’t believe in something greater than himself. Even while he struggled to accept the capital ‘G’ God, he constantly spoke of destiny, fate, and a higher calling. The problem wasn’t that he didn’t want to surrender. On the contrary, fully surrendering to a higher power would have made his life much easier. The holdup was that Lincoln was self-conscious of his own superstition. He believed in reason, science, and progress, and in his mind, the religious teachings of the time couldn’t fit into such a world view.

Eventually, Lincoln would come to accept a force greater than himself. To say he had a lapse of will to this force is likely an overstatement. However, he came to believe the calling on his life was ordained by a higher power. Even if his view didn’t match others’ understanding of God at the time, one could argue he was a more faithful servant than most.

Romans 13:10 says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” By working to end slavery in his country Lincoln demonstrated more love for his neighbors than many of his ‘religious’ peers thereby more perfectly fulfilling the law.

Sadder but Wiser

Abraham Lincoln’s strength of character is perhaps what he’s most respected for which warrants a deeper dive into the topic. As I mentioned earlier, what most people get wrong about America’s 16th president is that he was a perfect man who was born upright. Adversely, Lincoln struggled for the fortitude he’s famous for now. One line from the book illustrates this point perfectly: “For some people, psychological health is a birthright. For many others, like Abraham Lincoln, it is the realization of great labor.”

Our society today sees depression as something to be overcome. We label some feelings or conditions negative and others positive. Emotions like joy or happiness are deemed ‘good’ whereas emotions like sadness or anger are deemed ‘bad.’ This dichotomy we’ve created wasn’t so prevalent in Lincoln’s time.

His culture understood the complexities of different conditions and personalities. Mixed with ‘negative’ depression and gloom are ‘positive’ traits like deep reflection and heightened percipience. This nuanced understanding is probably a contributing factor to why a depressed man could be elected president. Voters knew that even leaders are not one dimensional. Lincoln did not turn away from his shadow but rather tapped into his dark side to fuel the fire of his purpose. He embraced the sadness that “coexisted with tremendous talent.”

Along this same vein, we must acknowledge how Lincoln didn’t succeed in spite of his suffering, but because he used it as motivation toward a worthwhile goal. The inner turmoil he faced throughout his life served as preparation for the external conflict he would face as president. Consequently, he may have been the only one with enough grit to see the emancipation of slavery through. Another man who may have experienced less suffering would not have been strong enough to face such a herculean task. In other words, Lincoln’s condition turned out to be not so much a handicap as it was training for what he would later be called to do. Today, we see depression as a condition to be overcome, but for Lincoln, it was a catalyst for growth.

“When Lincoln threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a role in his great work. The questions that beset him about how he could make his own life meaningful took on a new significance and vitality when applied to the public sphere. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity, discipline, and faith in hard times—perhaps especially in hard times.”

Also importantly, Lincoln was able to succeed not because he thought he was God’s gift to the world, but because he knew he was merely a spec of dust in a grand universe. This perspective gave him the humility to do his job in the face of adversity.

Although he considered suicide more than once, what allowed him to endure the suffering was the belief that he was an instrument in God’s plan. Again, he may not have always fully believed in the same God perceived by his peers, but he did believe in something greater than himself. He had the incredible humility to understand that he wasn’t the captain of his ship, but merely a vital crew member who had a job to do. By letting go of ego and surrendering to a greater cause, Lincoln was able to accomplish much more than any of his prideful contemporaries.

His humility was unusual and obvious enough for people to notice. One reporter took note, “No man in all New York… appeared more simple, more unassuming, more modest, more unpretentious, more conscious of his own defects.” Lincoln had an unapparelled self-awareness made possible by the truth only found in humility. Isn’t this something we should all strive for?

Reactions & Final Thoughts

This book isn’t so much a chronology of Lincoln’s life as it is a deep dive into who he was as a person. In it, the author answers the why questions instead of just what. Prior to this book, most literature on Abe Lincoln overlooked a critical aspect of his life: melancholy. Lincoln’s Melancholy is an encouragement to anyone who thinks they can’t do great things because they struggle with depression. Author Joshua W. Shenk shows us how one of America’s greatest presidents used the suffering that almost crippled him as fuel for a worthwhile goal.