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God, Lincoln, and Depression

How Abraham Lincoln could be both depressed and unassailably strong

Abraham Lincoln is an unusual psychological case study. He was both chronically melancholy, and yet among the strongest people in history.

Lincoln lost perhaps his one true love, and married a mentally unstable woman who abused him. He loved his sons - indulged them ridiculously - but one died very young, and another (Willie) died at age 11 in the White House, almost breaking Lincoln.

Oddly, the same philosophical-psychological outlook caused Lincoln to be both depressed, and incredibly strong. Lincoln was not a Christian, as he was raised. But it is not accurate to call him a disbeliever. His parents were hard-core Baptists, and Lincoln rejected their church. But their Calvinist views of predestination had an indelible impact on Lincoln.

Throughout his life, Lincoln was stricken with bouts of sometimes paralyzing melancholy. And although he enjoyed reading, telling stories, practicing law, political machinations - and playing with his children above all - Lincoln was never a cheerful person.

Yet Lincoln rose from a mediocre political career (he had previously won a single Congressional election) to become President. He not only assumed this was his birthright, but took every step to gain the presidential nomination. Lincoln was modest, but intensely self-assertive. Indeed, Lincoln's fear that he would never achieve the monumental destiny for which he believed he was foreordained made for his early melancholy.

Lincoln was a fatalist. It might not be too much to say he anticipated he would be murdered, or certainly that an early death awaited him. He felt - as I said - he was destined for a great role on earth. And he felt that his life path was meant to occur, and that he must follow it. Thus Lincoln - a compassionate man who regularly granted pardons and a humble person who allowed people to belittle him - could declare war on the Southern states, send hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths, and persist through the darkest hours of a war that at times seemed both endless and hopeless.

Lincoln endured the insults of cabinet members - Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war, called him a "gorilla" and referred to him as an imbecile. General George McClellan despised Lincoln and regularly dissed him. But when Lincoln - who in effect became his own chief general despite having no military background - felt McClellan had outlived his usefulness, he cut the general off at the knees and never looked back. Stanton came to be overwhelmed by Lincoln's greatness: at his death Stanton mourned, "There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen."

Lincoln listened attentively to his cabinet's views - but then, when he felt he had to - he made decisions against even the unanimous opinion of the people he respected. When Thurlow Weed, William Seward's campaign manager (Seward was Lincoln's chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination) first met Lincoln, he noted: "He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself."

Lincoln's speeches never refer to Jesus or to a Christian God. But they invoke a providence who metes out punishment and destiny according to its own design. Lincoln's view is embodied in this reference in his second inaugural address:

"Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

Lincoln's sense that a fate awaited him and all humans, and that this was both his destiny and his tragedy, made him a person whose psychological disposition cannot be easily summarized. It is hard for modern psychology to fathom how a depressed person was confident and energized enough to guide the most powerful country in the world through the chasm of its self-destruction, while never losing his humanity.

But let us judge not, that we be not judged.

Picture: Lincoln on the eve of assuming the presidency.