Failure and Depression: The other side of Lincoln’s life

Abraham Lincoln was a truly remarkable individual.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1909 this is what Leo Tolstoy (who was certainly no intellectual light weight) wrote about him in his book 'The World':

"The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years.... He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together.... and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives."

(For a glimpse into why Tolstoy used such hyperbole see the previous post on Lincoln: How Depression Moulded a Great Leader).

But the other side of Lincoln's life shows that he was no stranger to setbacks, disappointments and failure.

Below is a list of the disappointments interspersed with brief achievements in Lincoln's life:

 

  • Lost job, 1832
  • Defeated for legislature, 1832
  • Failed in business, 1833
  • Elected to legislature, 1834
  • Sweetheart (Ann Rutledge) died, 1835
  • Had nervous breakdown, 1836 (most likely his first depressive episode).
  • Defeated for Speaker, 1838
  • Defeated for nomination for Congress, 1843
  • Elected to Congress, 1846
  • Lost renomination, 1848
  • Rejected for Land Officer, 1849
  • Defeated for Senate, 1854
  • Defeated for nomination for Vice-President, 1856
  • Again defeated for Senate, 1858
  • Elected President, 1860
  • 11 year old son, Willie dies from typhoid fever in 1862, leading to a final severe episode of depression.

(For more on handling failure see How to Fail and Lose Well Part 1 and Part 2 along with 9 Ways to Look at your Failures With the Eyes of Faith).

On top of all that Lincoln had a temperament that veered towards depression and negativity, even at times reaching suicidal intensity.

Here is what he wrote in 1841:

"I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."

And in many ways Lincoln did become better - not necessarily in his mood but in his character and stature as a leader. His experiences enabled him to hold what seem to be contrasting qualities together for the common good. So in his personal letters of the 1850s he wrote with empathy of seeing shackled slaves in a steam boat in 1841.

But while he was empathic he was also realistic about the challenges of abolishing slavery. That realism bordered on ruthlessness. He was not consistent in his oppositions to slavery, but this can be understood in Lincoln's understanding that the American Constitution specifically permitted slavery. He attempted to find a way to bring together the two opposing factions in a peaceful manner. Before the outbreak of the Civil War he tried to be a truly national leader who would sympathise with both the North and South. What that meant in effect was that he was distrusted by both sides! When war over slavery became inevitable in spite of Lincoln's best efforts, he turned his attention as to winning it.

Victory was in sight by 1865 - but at huge cost. One estimate puts the number killed at 529,000 out of a population of 32 million. To put that in context, it was 10% of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30% of all Southern white males aged 18–40 who were dead. The potential for decades if not centuries of hatred and animosity was huge.

At his second inaugural address on 4 March 1865, just a few weeks before his assassination, Lincoln could say with genuine empathy and realism about both North and South:

"Both read from the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.....The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes....
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Lincoln had the depth of character and leadership ability to unite a nation divided by slavery. His untimely death meant that slavery was replaced by segregation. It would take another 100 years before another depressive leader, Martin Luther King, would have the strength of character to further challenge deep seated racism in the United States.

How does Lincoln's experience of setbacks, failure and depression speak to you and your own challenges? It would be great to have your thoughts and comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Failure and Depression: The other side of Lincoln’s life

  1. Thanks, Sunil. Good insights. We all need pruning in order to grow as leaders. It’s tough, but some of our greatest lessons come from our toughest trials.

  2. I think setbacks, failure and depression are part of each people’s life. Either it will make you or break you but this is reality of any great leader.

    • That’s a huge question David.
      He certainly suffered a lot of tragedy in his life and he also had a dour personality. However, the most significant thing was that he was able to use his experience to make himself into a better a person.
      Hope that helps!