Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Evolutionary Science of Abraham Lincoln's Ambition and Depression

Some years ago, I wrote a paper on "Biopolitical Science," which defended a theoretical analysis of the political behavior of political animals through three levels of deep history--the universal history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of political actors within the group.  To illustrate this, I tried to show how such a science could deepen our understanding of one of the crucial turns in American political history--Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.  We would need an evolutionary historical narrative moving through the natural history of slavery, the cultural history of slavery in America, and the biographical history of Lincoln as the political leader who won his glory in becoming the Great Emancipator.  (I have written some posts on this here and here.)

At the level of biographical history, I spoke about Lincoln's practical judgement or prudence in deciding whether, when, and how to issue his order of emancipation.  But a full biopolitical account of Lincoln's judgment would require an evolutionary explanation of his individual personality rooted in the emerging biological science of animal political personalities (the topic of some posts herehere, and here.)

Two of the most prominent features of Lincoln's personality were ambition and depression.  The testimonial evidence for these traits--both from those who knew him and from Lincoln himself--is collected in Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.

William Herndon--Lincoln's law partner and the author of one of the best biographies of Lincoln--described Lincoln as "inordinately ambitious," "a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions," and even "the most ambitious man in the world."  He observed Lincoln's "general greed for office" and his "burning and his consuming ambition."  He declared: "any man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln.  He was always calculating, and always planning ahead.  His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest" (Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 114, 172, 304, 340, 422-23, 486).

Lincoln grew up in an impoverished family in isolated rural areas of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  His father was illiterate.  But the people who knew the young Abe could see that he was determined to rise, to make something of himself, to achieve something great with his life.  To prepare himself for that, he had to educate himself, and people noticed that he was remarkably studious in his reading and writing.  Working for Josiah Crawford in 1825, when he was 16, Abe told him: "I'll study and get ready, and then the chance will come."  At age 20, he wrote into a friend's copybook: "Good boys who to their books apply / Will make great men by and by."  Another friend recalled that "Abe was just awful hungry to be somebody."

Ward Hill Lamon was a lawyer who travelled with Lincoln on the legal circuit in central Illinois, going from one courthouse to another.  Lamon said that Lincoln repeatedly told him that from a young age, he had foreseen that he would be President someday.  Years later, during the Civil War, Lincoln told Lamon: "You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President."

In his first race for public office, a seat in the Illinois legislature, the 23-year-old Lincoln was candid about his ambition in his public announcement of his candidacy to the voters of Sangamon County:
"Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.  Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.  How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.  I am young and unknown to many of you.  I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.  My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.  But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined" (Collected Works, 1:8-9).
He lost this election in 1832, but two years later, he won this state legislative seat; and he held this seat for four terms.  In the legislature, he was best known for advancing an extensive plan for internal improvements--building railroads, roads, bridges, and canals to foster economic growth.  But then when a major recession hit the state in 1837, the state's debt became unsustainable, and the expense of the infrastructure projects seemed excessive.  Lincoln struggled to defend his unpopular projects.  The work on the half-finished railroads, canals, bridges, and roads was halted, and Lincoln was blamed for the failure.

At the same time as these political setbacks, Lincoln faced a crisis in his personal life when he broke off his engagement to Mary Todd on New Year's Day 1841, because he had begun to doubt his love for this often tempestuous and irritable young woman.  At this point, at age 32, he was plunged into one of his deepest bouts of melancholic misery.

He withdrew into his room in Springfield and stopped attending sessions of the Legislature.  He considered committing suicide, and his friends removed all sharp instruments from his room.  He spoke with his best friend--Joshua Speed--who later reported the conversation to Herndon:
"In the deepest of his depression, he said one day he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived; and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation, and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow-men, was what he desired to live for" (Herndon's Life, 172, 422-23; Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 196-97).
22 years later, shortly after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he reminded Speed of this earlier conversation about his ambition for doing something great so that he would be remembered forever, and he told Speed: "I believe that in this measure, my fondest hopes will be realized."

And yet, as long as the outcome of the Civil War was in doubt, Lincoln could not be sure that his grand ambition would be fulfilled, and he was still often thrown into episodes of depression.  His friends used the word "melancholy" for his predisposition to depression.  Herndon said "his melancholy dript from him as he walked."  Henry Whitney, speaking of his travels with Lincoln on the legal circuit in the 1850s, said that "no element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy."  Whenever he was informed of some especially bloody battle in the war, when tens of thousands were killed, he would walk around the White House groaning in agony, wringing his hands, and telling people he was ready to hang himself.  He was particularly prone to despair when he learned of Union defeats.  After Joseph Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville, he cried out to his Secretary of War Stanton: "My God! Stanton, our cause is lost! We are ruined--we are ruined; and such a fearful loss of life!  My God! this is more than I can endure! . . . Defeated again, and so many of our noble countrymen killed! What will the people say?"

Some of the people who saw this life-long propensity to depression thought it might be an inherited temperament passed through his family.  Others thought it must have shown the damage from great losses early in his life--particularly, the many deaths of those he loved.  His infant brother died when he was 2 years old.  His mother died when he was 9 years old.  His sister died when he was 18.  At age 26, his beloved friend Ann Rutledge died.  At age 40, his son Eddie died.  At age 53, his son Willie died.

Burlingame makes a good argument for the thought that the most important cause of Lincoln's depression was his mother's death, in that all the later deaths and disappointments--including the casualties in the Civil War--that threw him into deep despair reawakened memories of losing his mother at age 9.  Lincoln's gloomy fascination with poetry about the deaths of all those we love provides some evidence for this.  For example, he greatly admired and often quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Last Leaf," which was concerned with the death of loved ones.  Here's his favorite stanza:

The mossy marbles rest
On lips that he has pressed
  In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Lincoln said: "For pure pathos, in my judgment, there is nothing finer than those six lines in the English language!"  Friends said that when he recited these lines, tears would come to his eyes.

Beginning with Herndon's Life of Lincoln, historians have employed "psychobiography" in trying to explain Lincoln's psychic propensities to ambition and depression.  Now, the theoretical and empirical research in evolutionary psychology can deepen this understanding of Lincoln's personality as part of a biopolitical science of leadership.

To be continued . . .


Arnhart, Larry. 2012. "Biopolitical Science." In Evolution and Morality, eds. James E. Fleming and Sanford Levinson, 221-265. New York: New York University Press.

Burlingame, Michael. 1997. The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Herndon, William, and Jesse Weik. 1983 (orig. 1892). Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle. New York: Da Capo Press.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1953. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols., ed. Roy Basler. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wilson, Douglas L., and Rodney O. Davis, eds. 1998. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Jon said...

An opposing view:

I personally think that Lincoln suffered from depression, but am not confident that we can diagnose him from this distance in time.

Doug1943 said...

It might be interesting to examine what I believe are the extensive personal characteristics held in common between Lincoln and Winston Churchill, the latter very definitely someone who suffered from depression.

Reading about both of them, I am struck by how much they had in common with respect to their worldview, despite obvious huge differences in the circumstances of their upbringing.

I believe both of them were rationalists, fully aware of the tragedy of human existence, but also with visions far beyond simply satisfying personal ambition. They had compassion for ordinary people, without having any illusions in their perfectibility, which is the main Original Sin of the Left.

There is a lot of accident in history, in particular the accident of human personality. We got lucky with Lincoln and Churchill. Maybe we'll get lucky again.