Lincoln’s Melancholy

Chris J. Tuell, EdD, LPCC-S, LICDC, Lindner Center of HOPE, Clinical Director of Addiction Services; University of Cincinnati, Department of Counseling, Adjunct Professor, Addiction Studies


For many of us growing-up in school, February was all about the Presidents, most notably, Abraham Lincoln. As our opinion of politicians has waned over the years, we can only wish that our political choices were of the caliber of our 16th President. Though the history books play a significant role in our perception and understanding of the “rail-splitter” from Illinois, it often becomes easy for us to forget that Abraham Lincoln was very human. Lincoln led this nation through its worst crisis, while at the same time battled his own internal war of chronic depression.

At the age of 32, Lincoln writes, “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 earth. Whether I shall ever better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; to remain as I am is impossible.”

Within the past few years, recent books and articles have addressed Lincoln’s melancholy by examining his own letters and the recorded observations of those who knew him. Lincoln scholars have clear evidence that he suffered from depressive episodes beginning in his twenties and lasting throughout the rest of his life. Lincoln’s school teacher, Mentor Graham stated, “Lincoln told me that he felt like committing suicide often.” Law partner and biographer, William Herndon, stated, “He was a sad looking man, gloomy, and melancholic.” Herndon adds, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”

Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. Depressive disorders may include: Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia (an ongoing, low grade depression), and Bipolar Disorder (mood swings of depression and mania). Depression can affect every aspect of one’s life: physical health, sleep, eating habits, job, and your relationships with friends and family. It affects thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Lincoln was a man with human strengths and frailties.   His depression or melancholy did not define who he was as a person, nor can the same be said for the millions of individuals who suffer from depression every day. Depression is one of the most common and most serious mental health issues facing people today. It is also one of the most treatable.

Lincoln had much cause for sadness throughout his life. His only brother died in infancy. His mother, an aunt, and uncle died from an epidemic when he was nine years of age. Ten years later his sister died giving birth to a stillborn infant. Historical records indicate that Lincoln’s mother and father were disposed to melancholy and that one side of the family “was thick with mental disease.” According to mental health professionals, bereavement in childhood can be one of the most significant factors in the development of depressive illness in later life.

As an adult, Lincoln experienced the loss of a close friend, Ann Rutledge, of whom who he grew fond of while living in New Salem, Illinois in 1835. As a father, Lincoln experienced the death of two young sons, Eddie and Willie. As Commander-in-Chief, one can only imagine the emotional toll the Civil War had upon Lincoln and the 680,088 lives that were lost in its cause.

Before the age of psychotherapy and medication, Lincoln learned to live with his depressive disposition. He would frequently utilize humor and story-telling to elevate his mood and distract himself from his depression. Only his closest friends had any insight concerning the extent of his condition. Learning how to manage his life with his depression was his only choice. The only other option would have been for him to succumb to these adversities. It does not appear that it was in the 16th President’s persona to acquiesce. Lincoln persevered and served this country eloquently.

We can only speculate what Lincoln would say or do about our current state of political affairs, or even what thoughts he may have towards the new millennium’s understanding of depression and mental health. But now, some 150 years later, Lincoln’s historical persona continues to “belong to the ages.” Abraham Lincoln believed in the human spirit and spoke of the role we must all serve toward one another. This was no more clearly expressed than through Lincoln’s own words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”