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Lincoln the Miserable

Published in Blog on November 17, 2023 by Jakob Fay

“I’m not very well,” Lincoln confessed.

It was the day after the 1860 state Republican convention in Illinois, and the future President of the United States had just been met with praise so thunderous the awning over his stage reportedly collapsed. Politically speaking, he was in his prime. 

But Abraham Lincoln was miserable.

“I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw,” said one event attendee. And when William J. Bross, the lieutenant governor of Illinois, later happened upon Lincoln alone, face in his hands, Lincoln admitted he was not well.

His whole life was marked by a profound sense of sadness. Those who knew him well were well aware of his constantly recurring melancholy. Lincoln himself acknowledged: “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be a cheerful face on earth.”

After Lincoln’s death, General Lew Wallace remembered an occasion on which the president had seemed almost sick with depression. “My heart filled with sympathy for him,” the general recalled, “for I knew something was wrong. As I approached him and looked into his face it seemed to me it was the saddest and most troubled countenance I had ever beheld. There were deep lines of suffering drawn and pinched. His hair was thin and uncombed. He was naturally somewhat stoop-shouldered, but seemed to be especially so on this occasion. As I drew nearer and caught his eye I was more deeply impressed with the sadness which permeated his whole being. If I were to live a thousand years I would not forget the anguish of the expression of his face.”

On that particular occasion, Lincoln insisted he was not unwell. Instead, he informed Wallace that he had a pressing responsibility to see to. His ever gun-shy General-in-Chief, George B. McClellan, was “retreating before the Confederates,” and Lincoln needed to “keep McClellan from surrendering the army.”

Wallace noted that Lincoln, despite his striking “anguish,” left to meet McClellan within thirty minutes, and “[t]he next I heard… the Union Army was not surrendered.”

In many ways, this incident underscores a recurring theme of Lincoln’s life, or at least his presidency. Bogged down by an intense depression, he nevertheless refused to let it get in the way of his duty to the Union. Although his characteristic dejection began before he entered the White House, his service to the nation and the Civil War no doubt aggravated that despondency.

We tend to heroize Lincoln but do not often see his heroism in light of his great personal sacrifice. The Union as we know it today exists because Lincoln suffered an unhappy life in service to his country.

At any point, the awesome burden of war and his own personal battles with depression could have caused him to quit.

In fact, Lincoln tried to quit politics before becoming president. But Providence had other plans.

Just as his life was tainted by grief it was also marked by Lincoln’s strong, inescapable sense of duty. Whatever the cost to his happiness, Lincoln was uniquely equipped by God to fill a role, bear a burden, and carry a cross no one else could. Preservation of the Union was in his hands, and he would see to it that government of the people, by the people, would not perish from the earth.

This was his duty, and onward he would trek.

“Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves,” Lincoln famously declared in his Cooper Union Address. “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Five years later, he blazoned a similar message in his Second Inaugural Address. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” he stated. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matthew 18:7) If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” (Psalm 19:9)

“With malice toward none,” he concluded, “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 a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Lincoln was resolved to do his duty — no matter how long it took or what it cost. And he had faith that America would do the same.

In a sense, his own forlorn figure was almost symbolic of the nation as a whole. Together, as Lincoln acknowledged in his speech, the American people had suffered unspeakable losses for four long years. Yet he urged them all to remember that every step had been ordained by God.

Nevertheless, not even his own deep faith or sense of fealty to the Union relieved him of the overwhelming weight he carried.

Or at least not until the day he died.

In a tragic (and cruelly ironic) final chapter, Lincoln’s last day, many have noted, may have been his happiest. “It was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and Abraham Lincoln was in an unusual mood: Happy. Giddy, even. He was a man freed of the heaviest burden any American president had ever been forced to bear. The mighty scourge of war — his phrase — was finally passing away.”

While in the past, countless had observed how sadness “permeated his whole being,” on this day — his wife, Mary Todd, would later write — “I never saw him so supremely cheerful — his manner was even playful.” He encouraged his wife that in the future they needed to be more cheerful, and together, they attended a play.

The rest, of course, is history.

Seemingly, the Great Emancipator had only just escaped the plague of depression… when the assassin’s scathing bullet found its mark.

The Shakespearean tragedy had ended in a perhaps fitting but no less devastating fashion.

But Lincoln’s chronic sorrow in no way tarnishes his legacy. In fact, it is in light of this underexplored facet of Lincoln’s persona that his great heroism is most clearly seen.

In the sixteenth president of the United States, we see a miserable, often unconsoled man who believed God had placed him on this earth to carry the weight of the world. Alone, it often seemed. And it was a joyless task. But so strong was his conviction and persuasion that the Union must be saved, he pledged, as Private Martin A. Treptowwould write six decades later: “I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight… and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle depended on me alone.”

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