Did Abe Lincoln Suffer from Bipolar?
No – at least according to award winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” However, it does appear that Lincoln experienced periods of depression and manifested a melancholy temperament. In January of 1841, in particular, Lincoln experienced a vortex of events, resulting in one of the lowest periods of his life. He had just experienced his broken engagement with Mary Todd, the woman who eventually became his wife. Two additional events caused Lincoln great pain – his political life seemed at a stalemate and his best friend moved away. What resulted was a period of Lincoln’s life that historians indicate included suicidal ideation and a marked withdrawal from his social life. Letters from that period even state that friends “had to remove razors from his room.” Interestingly enough, Lincoln sought treatment, consulting not only a Dr. Henry, but also Dr. Daniel Drake, a doctor at the medical college in Cincinnati. Lincoln eventually recovered from this very dark period of his life, in part, by monthly visits to see the best friend that had moved away. Author Goodwin goes on to delineate the difference between melancholy and depression. “To be sure, Lincoln was a melancholy man…this melancholy was stamped on him…it was part of his nature and could no more be shaken off than he could part with his brains.” Goodwin states that Lincoln’s melancholy partially indicated a withdrawal to the solitude of thought. As a child, he retreated from others to read. As an adult, he worked through a problem in private. It is Goodwin’s intimation that others frequently perceived this as evidence of melancholy. Also, the contours of Lincoln’s face, when relaxed, seemed to hint a sorrowful aspect. According to Goodwin’s thinking, there is a difference between depression and melancholy, the latter not having a specific cause. Rather, it is an aspect of temperament, of one’s nature. “Melancholy is a far richer and more complex ailment than simple depression. There is a generous amplitude of possibility, chances for productive behavior…” The melancholy that Lincoln seemed to exude “derived from an acute sensitivity to the pains and injustices he perceived in the world. He was uncommonly tenderhearted.” Goodwin argues that Lincoln possessed a profound capacity for empathy and for compassion, making him predisposed to sorrow but also profoundly capable of understanding his colleagues and the people he served as President. And another thing, Lincoln was “extraordinarily funny.“ “Lincoln himself recognized that humor was an essential aspect of his temperament. He laughed, he explained, so he did not weep.” His stories were intended to “whistle off sadness.” So did Lincoln manifest symptoms of bipolar? No, not as far as the history books seem to intimate. Did he experience a profound sensitivity to the events and people around him? Yes, and Goodwin seems to state it was what made him one of the best presidents our nation has ever known.