Lincoln: How depression moulded a great leader

I am almost ashamed and embarrassed to admit it - especially to my American readers. I've loved history, but one historical figure who over the years I've known very little about is Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). photo I never studied him at school and he seemed distant and aloof from a different time and culture. Yet his accomplishments would easily make him one of the all time world's greatest leaders.

Raised in poverty, he only had one year of formal schooling. He taught himself law, before eventually becoming the 16th President of the United States. Many would say the greatest American president of all time.

That would have been impossible to predict when he was nominated for president at the Republican National Convention in May 1860. The New York Herald of May 19 did not mince its words:

"The conduct of the Republican Party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller. They pass over..statesmen and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar."

Yet it was this same man who was almost single-handedly responsible for preserving the union of the United States at a time of great animosity and bitterness.  By the time the Civil War ended 529,00 men out of  a population of 32 million had lost their lives. (If you want a modern comparison think of Iraq, Syria, Somalia or Pakistan today). He had the foresight and vision to see that a truly United States could be a force for enormous good in the world. He understood the need for forgiveness and reconciliation as the only way forward for the country.

There is a story of how he was challenged by an elderly lady for calling Southerners who opposed him as fellow human being who were in error.  She described them as 'irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed'. Lincoln's response is as powerful and as relevant today:

"Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?"

Lincoln displayed remarkable spiritual maturity. Having a clear vision and purpose is one thing, but Lincoln had the inner character strength, communication skills and courage to actually begin to bring that about. In her book "Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" Doris Kearns Goodwin describes how Lincoln saved America from anarchy and civil war by appointing his fiercest critics to key cabinet positions. It was this book that apparently Barack Obama said he could not live without in the White House!

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is still considered to be one of the finest speeches  ever written in the English language. And on top of all that it was his leadership that brought about the emancipation of slavery in 1863. However, he was tragically assassinated in 1865.

The sudden curtailment of his presidency has led some historians to speculate that if he had been able to carry on then there might never have needed to be a civil rights movement. Indeed Martin Luther King Junior's famous "I have a dream" speech was delivered from the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963. (By the way, the picture is me standing at the Lincoln Memorial- in case you are wondering!). It served as a symbolic reminder that equal rights for blacks in the United States was a direct continuation of the work that Lincoln had started a hundred years earlier.

For a short 3 minute synopsis video of Lincoln's life see here:

But what has also come to light is that this remarkable man also suffered greatly with episodes of depression.

In 1835 after the death of a young woman whom he loved he became actively suicidal. Reports from the time include the following:

"Mr Lincoln's friends..... were compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the shock somewhat temporarily deranged."

"Lincoln was locked up by his friends.... to prevent derangement or suicide."

"That was the time the community said he was crazy.....After several weeks of worrisome behaviour - talking about suicide, wandering alone in the woods with his gun - an older couple took him into their home.... When he had improved somewhat, they let him go, but he was quite melancholy for months."

In the 1840s, Lincoln is reported to have admitted to a fellow politician how he was "the victim of a terrible melancholy" and that he was careful never to carry a pocket knife as he cold not trust himself with it.

it is recorded that in middle age his depressive episodes became less intense, leaving him with a mild depressed baseline personality. With the pressures of the Civil War, Lincoln apparently became more morose. He tragically lost his 11 year old son to typhoid fever in 1862 and this is thought to have led to a final depressive episode. It was only by April 1865 when he went to see a play at Ford's Theatre that he was on a path to recovery. It was there that he was assassinated.

Along with Churchill, Lincoln's struggle with depression had a powerful impact on the man he was.  His personal suffering rather than breaking him moulded him into the great man he was. We will look at that further in the next blog post.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and reflections in the comments section of the website.

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Lincoln: How depression moulded a great leader

  1. I didn’t engage in any combat but after I came back from Iraq I started to suffer severe depression, but I had had depressive episodes since being a teenager, but this one was the worst. I’m not sure if battling depression over the years has made me a better person, but it has definitely made me more compassionate and understanding to those who I see are suffering, since I have walked the road they are on.

    • Yes when we have gone through tough times it should make us more sensitive to the pain of others – although it is not always the case.