In The Midnight of the Mind

Leo Tolstoy once traveled through the Caucuses and found himself in the company of a Circassian tribe. He passed the night by telling his hosts stories of the greatest leaders of the civilized world: Napoleon, Washington, Caesar, and Alexander among others. The chief of the tribe stopped Tolstoy after a while and asked him about a man that was supposed to be the greatest ruler of them all; a man who spoke with the voice of thunder and laughed like the sunrise. That man was named Lincoln. The author acquiesced and told them all he knew about Lincoln. After the story was over, the Chieftain requested a picture of Lincoln from Tolstoy. Tolstoy gave a picture of the President to the tribesman and his host studied it for a bit. The tribesman noted to Tolstoy that Lincoln’s “eyes are full of tears and that his lips are sad with a secret sorrow.”

Lincoln is heralded as America's martyr, and rightfully so; but what has made him such an inspiration to countless people is that he was able to accomplish so much while harboring a sometimes crippling melancholy. He emancipated slaves, encouraged Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, and lead the Union to victory in its only Civil War; yet, it was the secret sorrow that haunted his lips and the tears that filled his eyes noticed by the tribesman half a world away, and the more one reads of him, the more one is able to relate to his humanity and his determination to harness the best of his ability to create a force for good.

Lincoln saw a series of emotional and professional catastrophes as a State Legislator in the winter of 1840. His best friend, Joshua Speed, was moving to Kentucky within the next few months and was marrying the girl whom Lincoln truly loved. To add fuel to the fire, he briefly courted Mary Todd during the same time and then abruptly called off the marriage with no explanation - sparking rumors all over town. Professionally, things did not look much better. After a catastrophic failure of a major piece of legislation that Lincoln lobbied for extensively, he unceremoniously jumped out of the State House window and became a mockery over the state.

In those darkest of days, Lincoln thought of resigning his soul to God, departing this world for the next. He went so far as to write a poem to the local newspaper entitled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy”, which described in stunning detail, the immensity of his depression:

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,

Or where my ashes lie;

Unless the beasts drawn round their bait,

Or by the ravens’ cry.


Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,

And this the place to do it:

This heart I’ll rush a dagger through

Though I in hell should rue it!

When he was not sulking, he often adopted a crude sense of humor to lift his own spirits when he was down. Many often complained that he would tell off-color jokes at the most inappropriate times, even in the Executive Mansion. These folksy anecdotes served as a coping mechanism for the troubled Lincoln.

Lincoln slept very little during his days as President and spent long nights alone, wandering the corridors of the Executive Mansion. He first saw his mother die of milk sickness; he watched his sister die of childbirth; he couldn’t save his first love from succumbing to typhoid; he helplessly watched two of his sons die; he was the Commander and Chief of thousands of countrymen who died at the altar of freedom. He was the patriarch of both a family that was plagued with death and a nation that lost too many of its sons on the battlefields to preserve the precious Union.

Though many suffer from manic-depression, not every man is charged with fighting a rebellion and preserving the Union. We all are, however, charged with waging our own battles against the darkest parts of ourselves. There are those who feel as if they must go through life alone, yet we should all look up to Lincoln and see a man who took his pain and his anguish and channeled it towards the sparking of the light - a light that shines bright even as the rest of the lights of the past slowly die out.

Lincoln is not the only one whose “black dog” pushed him to the pantheon of greats; Winston Churchill also dealt with the same manic-depression that haunted Lincoln. From men like Lincoln we see that melancholy enhances creativity, builds resilience in response to horrific trauma, and strengthens one's sense of realism and empathy. In many respects he was doomed to a certain loneliness of excellence. The whole course of Lincoln’s development made it inevitable that his suffering should be of the most severe and his triumph would rise from that anguish. From days of gloom and depression there is no doubt that glorious results came through sympathy, self-restraint, and sober reliance that good will triumph over evil.

Lincoln, like all those who suffer with melancholy, suffer the long nights alone with nothing but their racing thoughts. But the nights soon turned to mourns for Lincoln, so to it must for the millions who suffer from it. Sometimes, the most broken can change the world for the better.