How Depression Challenged a President and
Fueled His Greatness
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin, 368 pages, $25
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, 944 pages, $35
Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power
by Richard Carwardine
Knopf, 416 pages, $27.50
We know as much about Abraham Lincoln as we know about anyone in the nation’s past. As long ago as 1934, the Lincoln biographer James G. Randall asked historians to consider whether the sixteenth president had been exhausted as a historical subject. Yet all this time and literature later, he remains, as he has always been, something of a mystery to us, a figure of reverence, to be sure, but for that very reason sealed off from our understanding regardless of the knowledge we have piled up.
The contrast with George Washington is instructive. Many Americans view Washington with something close to the respect and significance they afford Lincoln, but they do not revere him. I suspect that my personal experience is not atypical. I have visited the Washington Monument and toured Mount Vernon. At neither place did I respond with anything like the sense of awe that I felt at my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial. That difference is not simply a matter of aesthetic response; Lincoln is in a different category from all other figures in our past. Even those who most firmly resist the temptations of political religion find it hard to hold the line at Lincoln, and they similarly find it hard to maintain historical and analytical distance in evaluating him.
Lincoln’s hold on us has to do first, of course, with historical contingency. He was president during our greatest national crisis and by that accidental fact guaranteed a commanding place in our history. Above all, there are the circumstances of his death at his moment of triumph in April 1865. The man who had preserved the Union and, in ending slavery, purged the nation of its great original sin was, on a Good Friday, martyred by an assassin’s bullet. The redeemer president of a redeemer nation passed instantly into mythology. In Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power , Richard Carwardine notes that even at the time of his death, a contemporary journalist sensed at once the implications: It has made it impossible to speak the truth of Abraham Lincoln hereafter.
Adding to that impediment to truth is pious over-familiarity. Who can listen to a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, for example, and actually have its message register? We hear the words”many older Americans memorized them in school”but they sweep over us unabsorbed.
All that said, Lincoln is not entirely opaque to us. He is a national icon, but even icons can, with effort, be kept in focus and maintained in human proportion. There has, in fact, been a resurgence in Lincoln scholarship in recent years, and what makes this resurgence especially welcome is that it is accessible not only to experts. Serious thinkers are writing biographies again, and people are reading them again”and the best of recent biographical treatments of Lincoln rescue the insights of narrowly focused scholars and incorporate them into the larger story of Lincoln’s extraordinary life and times.
The narrowest of recent books about the sixteenth president is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness . It is, in essence, a long article turned into a short book by the author’s ingenious, if not finally persuasive, effort to make Lincoln’s depressive psychology the key to his life.
We know that Lincoln had two major depressive episodes, both occurring when he was a relatively young man. The first came in 1835 when he was twenty-six and was somehow related (just how closely is not clear) to the death of Ann Rutledge, an acquaintance with whom he may or may not have been in love. The evidence on the matter is sketchy, but it seems clear that Lincoln fell into a prolonged depression deep enough to include thoughts of suicide.
The second episode came in the winter of 1840-1841, and the triggering events are uncertain. Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd had been temporarily disrupted, and his political fortunes in the Illinois legislature were at a low ebb. Whatever the causes, Lincoln again went into a deep funk, one so severe that associates saw to it that knives and other sharp instruments were kept out of reach. As he wrote to a friend: 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.
In time, the depression passed, and nothing so severe ever recurred. But, Shenk argues, Lincoln remained a deeply melancholy man, and Shenk traces a depressive inclination throughout Lincoln’s career, claiming that it shaped him at every step of the way. Shenk’s general model for doing so”a pattern in Lincoln’s development of fear, engagement, and transcendence”strikes me as too abstract to be of much help, and he lapses into identifying episodes of normal disappointment or unhappiness as signs of clinical depression. But he does make some suggestive observations concerning what one might call Lincoln’s process of sublimation.
Lincoln was always an ambitious man, and his depression, Shenk indicates, focused his energies not on personal fulfillment, which he sensed was closed to him, but on public engagement. He confessed to a friend during the 1840 episode that a deterrent to suicide was his dream of leaving his mark on his generation in some significant contribution to the common good. Lincoln’s melancholy also served as a kind of reality principle. In contrast to the typical American optimism of his times, Shenk argues, Lincoln saw the world as a deeply flawed, even tragic, place where imperfect people had to make the best of poor materials. Such philosophical conservatism (though Shenk does not call it that) kept Lincoln in close touch with political realism throughout his career.
But this grants too much. Neither the precise nature of Lincoln’s ambition nor his unillusioned view of human nature requires a diagnosis of depression for explanation. They could easily stand apart. One who thinks so is Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. She and Shenk apparently wrote without knowledge of the other’s work (they published at roughly the same time and without bibliographical reference to each other), but she directly refutes the argument he makes.
At the outset of her research, she says, I had assumed that Lincoln suffered from chronic depression. But along the way she changed her mind. She acknowledges the depressive incidents, as well as Lincoln’s characteristic sorrowful countenance and the frequent remarks of his contemporaries as to his air of sadness, but in the end she distinguishes what Shenk conflates: melancholy and depression. Lincoln had a melancholy disposition, she concludes, but he was not a depressive personality. After his youthful episodes, he simply operated at too high a level of continuing purpose, functioning good spirits, and success”in the midst of incredible public and private pressures”to be understood usefully in terms of psychological infirmity, even transcended infirmity. Shenk, to be fair, is nuanced and non-reductive in his analysis, but Goodwin seems to me more successful in placing Lincoln in a plausible psychological context.
Goodwin’s context, in any case, extends far beyond Lincoln’s personal psychology”beyond, in part, Lincoln himself. In Team of Rivals, Goodwin makes the case for her subject’s political wisdom by demonstrating his deft management and control of his cabinet. The first part of the book traces Lincoln’s pre-presidential career, but puts a fresh face on it by viewing it in tandem with the careers of his three chief rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860: William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom became members of Lincoln’s administration.
Goodwin manages this exercise in parallel biography with considerable skill. Lincoln’s rivals and future colleagues emerge as figures in their own right, not merely as foils to the main character. Taken together, their stories give readers a good sense of the dynamics of political ambition and upward mobility in mid-nineteenth-century America. For the period after 1860, Goodwin keeps us in touch with Seward, Chase, and Bates, and manages, while focusing more conventionally on the president, to offer as well shrewd portraits of his other major cabinet members, Edwin M. Stanton, Gideon Welles, and Montgomery Blair. Team of Rivals alternates without strain between the public and the private, and it wears its broad learning lightly. Goodwin has accomplished the not inconsiderable task of appealing to scholars and the general public alike; her book was a runaway best-seller and awarded the prestigious Lincoln Prize for 2006.
Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power is also a Lincoln Prize winner. (It won in 2004 after publication in Great Britain the previous year; the slightly revised American edition came out in 2006.) This is a more conventional book than Goodwin’s, but it is not (with one significant reservation) inferior to it. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a better introduction to Lincoln’s political career, and the context in which it occurred, than what Carwardine, Rhodes professor of American history at Oxford University, has produced. This is concise political biography at its best, marked by impeccable scholarship, broad understanding, crisp prose, and perceptive judgment. It is not geared to be a bestseller, but scholars, and discerning general readers, will recognize its excellence.
Carwardine effectively summarizes and integrates into his analytical narrative the findings of other historians, but his is not simply a work of synthesis or even of fresh takes on existing knowledge. He has written earlier on religion and politics in antebellum America, and he provides a vivid account of the centrality of evangelical Protestantism, both theologically and institutionally, to the antislavery and, later, Unionist causes to which Lincoln dedicated his life. In recent decades, the political history of the United States has been rewritten to emphasize the role of ethno-religious factors, and Carwardine’s book participates in that rewriting.
The role of religion in Lincoln’s own life is, as Carwardine notes, a considerable puzzle. He was not himself an evangelical Protestant; indeed, he may not have been, in an orthodox sense, a Christian at all. He rejected his parents’ hard-shell Baptist faith and was, as a young adult in New Salem, Illinois, something of a village atheist. He never denied the existence of a remote creator God, but he did reject, as Shenk notes, standard Protestant notions of eternal damnation, innate sin, the divinity of Jesus, and the infallibility of the Bible. He never publicly expressed Trinitarian faith and he seems not to have believed in an afterlife.
Yet it is also the case that the trajectory of Lincoln’s religious life moved in the direction of affirmation; what Allen Guelzo (another Lincoln Prize winner) summarizes in his superb Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) as a Calvinized deism edged, by the end of Lincoln’s life, toward an openness to, if not precise discernment of, divine purpose.
The young Lincoln was a fatalist who perceived God as, at most, a distant designer revealed only through the mechanical and deterministic operations of natural law. He held to a doctrine of necessity that denied free will. The Lincoln of the war years, however, saturated his speeches in the language of a providence that, however finally inscrutable, was active in history and that made room for purposive human behavior. We must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, Lincoln concluded, trusting that so working . . . conduces to the great ends He ordains.
Whether by the end of his life Lincoln had arrived at some semblance of orthodox faith cannot be known. Shenk, reflecting the scholarly consensus, is doubtful. He visited, but he didn’t move in, Shenk says of Lincoln’s relation to Christianity. Perhaps so, but his increasingly frequent comments during the White House years of reliance on divine favor suggest an emerging spiritual sensibility, however uncertain its precise nature.
If Lincoln was heterodox and atypical in his religious views, he was thoroughly representative in politics, economics, and culture. His life was the bourgeois American Dream made manifest. Lincoln’s origins were about as undistinguished as could be imagined; opponents referred to his poor white trash background. His father Thomas Lincoln barely scraped out a subsistence existence on the land, and the son was determined to escape rural poverty. Lincoln was a great admirer of the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he had little patience for the Jeffersonian dream of America as a land of self-sufficient farmers. There was nothing in him of romantic agrarianism.
He was, in fact, before the birth of the Republican party in the 1850s, a Hamiltonian Whig: a proponent of the market economy and of an urban, industrial society. He believed in individualism, self-help, and social mobility, and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography was an early inspiration. Lincoln’s philosophy was, in brief, that of self-interest, rightly understood. The Whigs were the party of self-improvement and middle-class triumphalism, unashamed of prosperity and committed far more to economic expansion than to economic equality. They supported policies”a national bank, a protective tariff, and internal improvements”directed to economic development and they defined themselves, in no small part, against Andrew Jackson’s assault on economic elites. Lincoln, whose political heroes were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, took pride in the modest prosperity he came to enjoy.
But the Whig ethic of self-reliance that he embraced was thoroughly democratic, meritocratic, and encompassing in its program of political economy. Mass prosperity and mass democracy were mutually reinforcing. We admire the rhetorical resonances of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, but one perhaps better gets at the heart of Lincoln’s democratic faith in the homely words he addressed to Union veterans toward the end of the war. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this that the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright.
Lincoln’s antislavery sentiments coincided with his Whig predilections. They began, to be sure, in simple moral conviction. As he wrote in 1864, he had believed for as long as he could remember that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. But, as Carwardine notes, his sense of economic justice reinforced that primal moral instinct: Slavery stifled individual enterprise, discouraged self-discipline, and sustained a fundamental inequality; depriving human beings of the just rewards of their labor.
Lincoln had to proceed with political delicacy on questions of slavery and race. Antislavery sentiments were widespread in the North; more widespread were notions of white supremacy. Whites opposed slavery in their states and in the remaining territories to the west. They did not want to have to compete against slave labor, and most of them did not want contact with black people at all. Lincoln’s home state of Illinois barred blacks from taking up residence and, like most northern states, had a series of laws that, as Goodwin summarizes, prevented those already there from voting, holding political office, giving testimony against whites, and sitting on juries. Lincoln’s greatest liability in his 1858 race for the U.S. Senate against the Democrat Stephen Douglas was the suspicion that he was, as Douglas insisted, a racial egalitarian.
As with religion, Lincoln’s personal views on race are impossible to define precisely. They were, it is safe to say, retrograde by our lights, but highly advanced, even radical, by standards of the time. He denied belief in social and political equality. But he also insisted that the black man, in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.
More controversially, he insisted that in speaking of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the promulgators of the Declaration of Independence meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere. Or with more particularity: Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man”this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. . . . Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.
The Founders, Lincoln believed, acting on the principles of the Declaration, had meant to set slavery on the road to extinction. That process had been frustrated by political measures (the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) and judicial opinions (the Dred Scott decision of 1857) that reopened what had been earlier foreclosed: the extension of slavery to the western territories.
That slavery was wrong was, to Lincoln, obvious; what to do about it was an intractable difficulty. He frankly confessed that even if given autocratic powers, he would not know how properly to deal with it. Recognizing that his own relatively enlightened views on race went against the national grain, Lincoln came to the reluctant conclusion that blacks and whites in America could not live together in amity. Thus his despairing solution for an apparently insoluble dilemma: Black slaves should gradually be manumitted (with compensation to their owners) and then, along with free people of color, colonized elsewhere. The policy never made sense. All other objections aside, Lincoln’s own humane insistence that it be voluntary made it a nullity. The great majority of blacks in America, slave or free, had no desire to return to Africa or find some other foreign place of residence.
Lincoln’s support for colonization, however puzzling to us today, had broad appeal among people of goodwill at the time who clung to the policy for lack of a decent alternative. Lincoln took a place of leadership in the antislavery cause (which was always assertively non-abolitionist) by, as Carwardine summarizes, his principled but prudent set of views: moral repugnance at the institution, sympathy for the slave, respect for the protection the federal Constitution afforded slavery, commitment to preserving social order, belief in the essential goodwill of the southern slaveholder, and the need for common, gradual action by North and South on a problem for which they shared responsibility. In that last phrase, and in the impossibility of it finding practical effect, lies the source of the probably unavoidable tragedy of the American Civil War. The dilemma of slavery in America defied solution, and by Lincoln’s time it had come to defy further avoidance.
It is difficult to imagine anyone who could have brought more good out of the Civil War”a war that took more American lives than all the rest of the nation’s wars combined”than Abraham Lincoln. He continued in the White House the unique combination of moral commitment and pragmatic instinct that had taken him there in the first place. Judgment is everything in politics, and Lincoln’s political judgment was superb.
His view of the war evolved with events. At the outset, the war’s purpose had simply to do with preservation of the Union, the necessity, in Lincoln’s words, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. Lincoln and the Republicans held firm against slavery’s extension, but they had no intention of extirpating it where it existed. It was secession they held unacceptable, not the South’s peculiar institution. Lincoln, of course, hoped and believed that over time slavery would die of its own weight, but in the secession crisis of 1861”where his immediate priority was maintaining the loyalty of the border slave states”he was willing to offer constitutional guarantees that slavery would end only at the will of the slave states themselves. The war, he insisted early on, is for a great national object, and the Negro has nothing to do with it.
He changed his mind as the conflict developed. When what he had hoped would be a short war turned into a long one, he came to see that slave labor gave the South a significant logistical advantage. He also recognized that those in the North most committed to prosecution of the war were those committed to slavery’s demise. Thus his gradual development of an emancipation policy”first as an adjunct to the war effort, eventually as a war end in itself”that finally culminated in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Along the way, Lincoln skillfully read and adroitly led public opinion, even as he maneuvered carefully between the conservative Republicans and war Democrats committed to the Union but leery of emancipation and the radical Republicans for whom commitment to the Union required an end to slavery.
Most of the time Lincoln tried to lead through consensus and persuasion, but his growing confidence in his own judgment made him, where he considered it necessary, forceful in imposing his will. In discussing with his cabinet his decision for emancipation, he made it clear that he was informing them, not consulting them. At other times, he showed flashes of imperial insistence. In January 1865 he was two votes short of getting the necessary two-thirds margin in the House of Representatives for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. His instructions to his vote managers were blunt: I am president of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come”a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am president of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes. The votes were procured.
Lincoln’s prosecution of the war displayed the same aggressive instincts. He agonized over the war’s savagery but sensed nonetheless that the right strategy was using the North’s numerical advantage to crush, even if at terrible cost, the Confederate forces. Carwardine notes his cold statistical ruthlessness. In the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, the Union suffered 13,000 casualties, far more than those of Robert E. Lee’s army. Even as he grieved over the Union dead, Lincoln contemplated, in his own words, the awful arithmetic of the battle’s meaning: If the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone. Lincoln’s compassion was wreathed in iron will.
That increasingly assured will coincided with the trajectory toward dependence on providence that marked the White House years. Given the war’s carnage”a carnage for which he must have felt himself in some sense responsible”it is hardly surprising that Lincoln might look for transcendent affirmation. Scholars rightly note that Lincoln avoided a precise identification of the Union cause with the will of God. He wrote privately that in the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party, a point made public in the humble recognition of the Second Inaugural that the Almighty has His own purposes.
But Lincoln never doubted for a moment the moral rightness”and the divine approbation that stood behind it”of the struggle against slavery. If he never unambiguously invoked God in the Union cause, it is certain he would have found unfathomable the idea that God might favor the Confederacy. God’s purposes were hidden, but they were not perverse. North and South might share historical guilt for the evils of slavery”and thus might each fall, in undecipherable ways, under divine judgment”but that judgment could not be evenhanded as to slavery itself. After the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln announced to his bemused cabinet that the Union victory had sealed a promise he had made to himself and to my Maker to consider a favorable outcome there a sign that, on the question of emancipation, God had decided this question in favor of the slaves.
All this should not be exaggerated. Lincoln’s theological affirmations remained equivocal, and one senses that he finally felt more at ease in the language of Enlightenment rationalism than in conventional Christian discourse. Nonetheless he participated, even if at a distance, in the melding of the Republican and Union cause with Protestant millennial yearnings. From Republican beginnings in the 1850s, Carwardine notes, Protestant evangelicals”Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists (the Protestant establishment of the time)”went further than their predecessors in identifying the arrival of God’s kingdom with the success of a particular political party. Pious Republicans saw their party as the vehicle of conscience, Calvinistic duty, and social responsibility. Whatever Lincoln’s shortcomings in orthodox doctrine, Carwardine argues, he often acted as a Yankee puritan in political practice.
Republican moralism, it should be noted, had its dark side. Significant elements of the party coalition were involved in nativism and anti-Catholicism. Lincoln was neither anti-Catholic nor anti-foreign, but it is notable that the eloquent anti-nativist sentiments historians so often note (How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people?) were expressed in private correspondence. In public he maintained a restrained silence.
The war greatly intensified Protestant millennial impulses. The Union cause got identified with America’s providential role in the realization of God’s kingdom on earth, a cause and role in which political and religious freedom were inextricably intertwined in a transcendent patriotism. Lincoln kept his distance from millennial extravagance”with characteristic nuance he spoke of Americans as God’s almost-chosen people”but in sympathetic speeches to religious audiences and in proclaiming days for fasting and thanksgiving, he spoke a language, as Carwardine says, which persuaded the public that the administration was under the guidance of a man who recognized his dependence on divine favor.
Lincoln’s accomplished leadership of evangelical opinion”opinion that, in Carwardine’s judgment, did more than any other single force to mobilize support for the war”exemplifies his overall leadership of the Union cause. His rhetorical precision and brilliance were unprecedented, his political and military judgment uncommonly acute. Carwardine describes that leadership in detail and with great acuity, but then, in an odd conclusion, draws back from his own analysis. His subject, he suggests, is not really a great man, but one who earns the label ?exceptional’ chiefly because of the office he held and the singular circumstances in which he held it. Lincoln, he goes on, is best understood not as the extraordinary figure of the iconographers, but as a man of his times, politically wise but capable of misjudgments, too, and powerful largely because he was representative and, as such, deeply familiar with his people and his context. This is a disappointing dying fall, one Carwardine himself seems not genuinely persuaded of. (A few pages later, in his afterword for the American edition, he speaks of Lincoln as staking a persuasive claim to being the greatest of the nation’s leaders.)
Doris Kearns Goodwin displays better judgment. She notes with approval the contemporary observation of the poet James Russell Lowell concerning Lincoln’s profound common sense. That phrase gets Lincoln just right, and it does not take an iconographer to recognize it. Lincoln was indeed (religion complicatedly aside) representative of the substantive views of the middle America of his time. But if he embodied he also transcended. He was America made noble. He combined the mundane American Dream with idealism that never degenerated into utopian fantasy. Lincoln held in delicate tension political reality and moral aspiration. And it was his extraordinary practical wisdom, his profound common sense, that held it all together. Not to recognize Lincoln’s greatness is to miss the obvious.
Goodwin ventures further. Historians speak sparingly of greatness, rarely of goodness, almost never of the two together. With a kind of ingenuous intellectual boldness, Goodwin makes that connection. Lincoln’s tough-minded political skills coincided, she argues, with an extraordinary array of personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. It is notable how often, in the accounts Lincoln’s colleagues left of his treatment of them, the word magnanimous occurs.
A great man and a good man: It is appropriate that we hold him in singular regard. It would diminish us not to do so.
James Nuechterlein is the former editor of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?