On Lincoln…

Monday Musings for February 24, 2020
Volume X, No. 8/471


Abraham Lincoln:  A Book Review and Essay on Mental Health

Presidents’ Day—Part II

 By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon), DLFAPA*

A Personal Note: Of the 45 US Presidents, only four were born in February,  The first and foremost about whom we wrote last week is the father of America, George Washington (born February 22, died December 14, 1799).  The other three are Ronald Reagan (February 6, 1911, died June 5, 2004); William Henry Harrison (born February 9, 1773, died April 4, 1841), Harrison died of pneumonia only 31 days into his first term) and of course Abraham Lincoln (Born February 12, 1809, assassinated April 15, 1865). Today’s “MM” is  dedicated to President Lincoln. Sorry for the delay.)


February 12 is Lincoln’s birthday. It is somewhat of an irony that George Washington, the grand patriarch of our beloved nation, was born on February 16. We wrote about GW last Monday. Today’s edition of “Monday Musings” is devoted to the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln, whose decisions saved our country from splitting in half. In observance of the occasion, I am offering the review of the book “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, publisher Houghton Mifflin Company.

When a publisher sends a book for review, I routinely cast an editorial “screening” glance to separate substance from fluff by noting the book’s proportion of text to notes, bibliography, and index. A scholarly and substantial book usually carries an extensive set of notes and references for almost every line of the book. A high volume of notes and an extensive bibliography assure the reader that the book is not fluff. Such is Shenk’s remarkable book on Lincoln. The title is misleading. Although the book deals with Lincoln’s depression and melancholia, it is really a psychobiography of Lincoln a la Freud’s work on Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky. Part of the book reads very much like Maynard Solomon’s biography of Mozart the review of which the faithful readers of this space recall from an earlier day.

But there is something unique about this book. It is a book that seduces the reader. I fell in love with the book, not with the subject, not with the author’s erudition and intellectual prowess, not with the brilliant syntax and craftsmanship of the composition, but with the book itself. For me, an objective book reviewer engaged in this pursuit for more than 50 years, it is a rare phenomenon that the book itself becomes the object of love.

Well, the book has a prelude, and introduction and three parts with subsections dealing chronologically with Lincoln’s birth, growth, development, political maturation, education, religion, social interaction and finally death. But first a word about the author.

Joshua Wolf Shenk is neither an academic historian nor a Lincoln specialist. He is not of stature of famed Douglas Wilson, author of “Lincoln’s Sword” or Allen Guezlo, the internationally renowned leading Lincoln scholar.  Readers might recognize Joshua from the pages of New Yorker, Harper, and Atlantic Monthly. He is referred to as an “independent scholar.”  In this book, he shows command of psychopathology of depression, a good understanding of DSM IV (Diagnostic statistical Manuel IV) and a keen insight into human nature. He seems to understand the comprehensive model of bio-psycho-social dynamics in the genesis and evolution of mental illness. But none of these explains why the book had a mesmeric effect on me. I guess as a psychiatrist in my practice dealing with psychic trauma and life tragedies, it is comforting to see the story of a man like Lincoln, with incredible childhood depravity, adverse upbringing, having lived a life of domestic slavery, constant beating and emotional denigration and put down, pull himself out of psychological sewer, literally clean up, educate himself, and ultimately become the 16th President of the United States of America. It is this subtle message reflective of Pauline theology of redemption, hope, love, faith, and possibilities that generated the uncommon mesmeric effect on me.

The book starts with a startling chapter on Lincoln’s family history of mental illness. His uncle Tom Lincoln, according to court records had a “deranged mind”. So did his parents. Lincoln’s parents were born in Virginia and crossed the Appalachian Mountains and came to Kentucky in the late 18th century. They married in 1806 and had three children, Sarah, born Feb 19, 1807; Abraham, born February 12, 1809; and his brother Thomas born in 1811. They were all prone to deep depression. Lincoln’s mother Nancy died on October 5, 1818. She was about 35 years old. Lincoln was nine. Along the way, in addition to Lincoln’s mother, Lincoln lost his uncle and aunt. His care was left to a twenty-year-old cousin, during the absence of Abe’s father who returned to Kentucky to court his second bride. Lincoln was beaten, mistreated and abused during those years. There are a lot of well documented accounts that Lincoln was self-taught. As a child he read all the books he could find. Tom Lincoln, Abe’s father, at some point started to oppose his son’s reading and education. The relationship between father and son was conflicted and abusive; Tom Lincoln would beat young Abe mercilessly. However, Lincoln continued to read and memorize and became very popular with his friends and fellow workers. It is recorded that he was not sad and depressed during his teen years because he had many friends and knew more than all of his friends put together. He did not attend a university to learn law. “I studied with nobody,” he said. A lawyer named Lynn McNutty Greene wrote that “Abraham Lincoln was extremely ambitious.”  Greene remembered Lincoln telling him that all the folks seem to have good sense but none of them become distinguished, and he believed it was for him to become so.

Tracing the mental status of Mr. Lincoln, one discovers that he was suicide prone. At one time, a neighbor, Mentor Graham, related that “Lincoln told me that he felt like committing suicide often.” The neighbors and friends were compelled to keep watch and ward over him. This was even more pronounced when Lincoln’s first love, a bright, pretty young woman, Anna Mayes Rutledge, with flowing blond hair and blue eyes became ill. She died August, 1835. Lincoln was desperately in love with Anna. He suffered his first bout of major depression after her death. He had a second and more devastating bout of major depression in 1841. The repeat episode of major depression was precipitated by many causes among them breaking his engagement with his wife to be, Mary Todd, possibly “because of his affection for another woman.” Again, his friends and relatives were fearful that Lincoln might commit suicide. They removed guns and knives from his environ.

There is another set of assumptions that relates Lincoln’s depression to Marfan Syndrome.  Marfan is an inherited genetic disorder that diminishes the strength of connective tissue from tendons to heart valves. Persons afflicted with Marfan are tall, gangly, with hyper flexion of joints. Marfan along with other connective tissue disorders such as Ehler-Danlos Syndrome are often associated with depression. An aside: the famed magician virtuoso violinist Paganini who could produce those fabulous high notes on his instrument, by hperflexing his arm and fingers had Ehler-Danlos Syndrome and for most of his life suffered from depression. Robert Schumann who wished his fingers were like Paganini’s to do acrobatics on the keyboard, suffered from Bipolar Disorder. He would put his fingers through painful stretch exercises to make them longer and more limber….

Back to Lincoln, I do know of several sources who have studied Lincoln’s connective tissue disease including the eminent researcher, Victor A. McKusick, Professor of Medical Genetics at Johns Hopkins. He along with other Lincoln scholars, including Gabor Borritt, Adam Borritt, Douglas Wilson and Allan Guelzo, collectively state that Lincoln did not have Marfan Syndrome.

The second part of the book deals with the dynamics of Lincoln as a self-made man. He won elections, made friends, and with his eloquence mesmerized his audience. Lincoln continued to be ambitious, determined, and industrious. He was a devoted Christian with flavors of “old school of Calvinism”, and “hard shell Baptism” running through his speeches. However, Lincoln was a pragmatist and had a keen sense of reality.

According to Allen Guelzo, the leading Lincoln scholar, Lincoln was a serious philosophical thinker who kept abreast of leading ideas of his time. An indication of his pragmatism, as an example, in 1846 he wrote “What I understand is called ‘the Doctrine of Necessity’, that is the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.”  It was John Stuart Mill who first used the phrase “Philosophical Necessity.” The author quotes Herman Melville, Lincoln’s contemporary and fellow melancholic who suffered deep depression, “The in tensest light of reason and revelation combined cannot shed such blazing light upon deeper truths in man, as well sometimes proceed from his own profoundest gloom. Utter darkness then is his light, and cat-like he instinctively sees all objects through a medium which is mere blindness to common vision.

Part Three of the book deals with Lincoln’s Presidency and the fierce civil war which he fought with conviction and courage. He was absolutely against the notion of the United States splitting into two nations. He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of who lived to maturity. In 1858 Lincoln ran against Stephen A. Douglas for US Senate. He lost the election, but in debating with Douglas he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican Party nomination for President in 1860. As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. On January 1, 1863, he issued The Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865 Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South.

In his epilogue, the author states that he went to spend a weekend with the Association of Lincoln Presenters at their annual convention in Beckley, West Virginia. Seeing all these men in black suits and stovepipe hats and beards shaved above the chin was an instructive experience. However, he concludes that “it is a generic and inherent flaw of biography that in order to wrestle a figure, in this instance the formidable figure of Lincoln, onto the page, three dimensions get turned into two.” However, I believe that the young scholar, Joshua Wolf Schenk has done an excellent job of painting a three- dimensional picture of Lincoln. Bravo!

Lastly, this book has one perhaps unintended but welcome social and political implication. Here we have a politician, Lincoln, with depression genes atavistically skulking his psychic space. He had several major depressive episodes (nervous breakdowns in 19th century parlance) well known to the public. Yet he rose to become President of this country. I was thinking of the late Thomas Eagleton, the former US Senator from Missouri, and George McGovern’s VP nominee on the 1972 Democratic ticket who had to withdraw because of controversy over history of depression. It seems the public tolerance of mental illness has drastically decreased since 1841, Lincoln’s last episode of major Depression, to 1972, when it was discovered that Eagleton had treatment for depression. Are we turning backward?


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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