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Lincoln and His Legend

Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings

by Charles B. Strozier
Basic Books, 271 pp., $17.50

Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality

by Dwight G. Anderson
Knopf, 271 pp., $16.95

Abraham Lincoln is by far the most written-about figure in American history. Indeed, a complete Lincoln bibliography would itself be a thick book. But some intriguing mysteries remain which continue to attract the interest of serious scholars, as well as providing raw material for popularizers and myth-makers. Now that all his papers are readily accessible and all the hard facts about him that we are ever likely to know have been subjected to orthodox historical analysis, the Lincoln industry is retooling. The new trend is toward psychological explanations of his thought and behavior. The great precursor of the psycho-Lincolnians was Edmund Wilson, who argued that Lincoln early in his life developed an exalted and mystical sense of his historical role.1 More recently, the historian George B. Forgie offered “A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age,” based on the assumption that Lincoln’s Oedipal conflicts meshed with the ambivalent attitude of his generation toward the Founding Fathers of the nation.2 Now we have two more studies that try, in rather different ways, to put the Civil War president on the analyst’s couch and uncover his hidden motives.

Although Lincoln had the habit of keeping his private feelings and attitudes to himself, there are some shards of intimate revelation in his papers, and in the reliable testimony of those who knew him, that are bound to tempt psychohistorical detectives. It is well established that he had a very strained relationship with his father. When Thomas Lincoln was on his deathbed, Abraham refused to make a trip of about a hundred miles to see him and sent an extraordinarily cold and impersonal letter explaining his decision. It is also clear that he worshiped the memory of his mother, who died when he was a child, and had a very warm relationship with his stepmother, to whom he paid a special visit before going to Washington to assume the presidency. From as orthodox Freudian point of view, he must have been caught up in a complex and painful Oedipal situation. At times Lincoln succumbed to fits of depression that may strike us as pathological. In January 1841 he had a debilitating attack of what he called “the hypos” and was in such despair that his friends feared for his sanity and tried to keep lethal weapons out of his reach. Although he never reached such a low point again, many observers described a recurrent tendency to lapse into deep melancholy. Lincoln also had an intense and persistent preoccupation with death. Mortality and the futility of human striving was the subject of a poem that he was fond of reciting, and he even tried his own hand at writing graveyard verse. He frequently referred, both publicly and privately, to his own inevitable demise, and while he was in the White House he dreamed prophetically about dying in office.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Lincoln had an abnormal personality. He experienced more than his share of personal tragedy—in childhood the deaths of a mother and sister, later the loss of two of his four children and the developing insanity of his wife. It should not surprise us that he was sometimes depressed and morbid. Furthermore, his culture favored open expression of such feelings. In mid-Victorian America, sex was unmentionable but death was a fashionable topic—the exact reverse of what prevails today—and melancholia was more likely viewed with romantic fascination than as a stigmatizing sign of mental illness. But psychohistorians insist that Lincoln’s psychological traits have a larger significance. Following the example of Erik Erikson’s provocative psychoanalytic biographies of Luther and Gandhi, they see “the great man” as working out his personal conflicts in public action and earning the adulation of others because he resolves or at least embodies a collective psychological crisis as well as a purely personal one.3

Those seeking to relate the “conflicted” private man to the great statesman have relied heavily on Lincoln’s first major public address, a lecture he gave before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1838. Ostensibly a call for law and order in the face of the wave of mob violence in Jacksonian America, the speech contains what strikes many readers as a curiously ambivalent warning against the rise of an American Caesar or Napoleon. “Towering genius,” the young Lincoln proclaimed, will not be satisfied to follow in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers and defend the existing republic. “It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” According to Edmund Wilson, Lincoln already had grandiose dreams of his own destiny and was deliberately projecting himself into the role that he pretended to be warning his audience against. Subsequent analysts of Lincoln’s developing image of himself, including the two under review, have offered more complex interpretations, but they have followed Wilson’s example in viewing this passage as a window on Lincoln’s psyche and a key to the personal motivations behind his public career.

In Lincoln’s Quest for Union, Charles B, Strozier calls attention to the “Oedipal implications” of the Lyceum speech. A historian with psychoanalytic training, Strozier departs from Wilson by distinguishing between what he takes to be conscious and unconscious levels of meaning. Consciously, Lincoln thought he was assuming the role of a good son by venerating the Founding Fathers; unconsciously, “by his indentification with the towering genius,” he was expressing filial rebellion and a desire to displace these “collective, historical fathers.”

When Lincoln emerged in the 1850s as a leading opponent of the expansion of slavery to the territories, he continually justified his position by invoking what he took to be the intentions of the Founding Fathers. As in the Lyceum speech, he was investing “the founders and their work with all the grandeur so lamentably absent in his real father.” But during his wartime presidency, he freed himself from psychological dependence on these mythic father substitutes, realizing that historical circumstances had “put him on a par with the founders.” In the famous presidential speeches, it was God and not the spirit of Washington and Jefferson who presided over the nation’s destiny. When he realized that he was personally responsible for the fate of the nation and accepted this responsibility, Lincoln no longer needed an idealized human father. At that point, “only God, and no man, could supply the meaning of human existence.”

Strozier carefully avoids saying, or even implying, that Lincoln was expressing Oedipal rage when he freed himself from subservience to the founders during the war. On the contrary, he suggests that Lincoln was achieving the psychological and intellectual autonomy necessary for the performance of his duties and the achievement of his own legitimate goals. Through most of his book, Strozier resists any temptation to push psychoanalytic theories to a logical and reductionist extreme. Avoiding jargon and appealing to common sense, he devotes most of his attention to Lincoln’s personal and domestic life and succeeds in providing valuable new insights into the private man behind the public image.

The Lincoln that emerges had a powerful craving for the esteem of others but had to struggle to overcome strong feelings of inferiority. As a young man he was torn between the ambition to succeed and an inhibiting sense of shame because of his humble origins and ancestry. This ambivalence about his self-worth came out in his difficult relations with women—especially in his tortuous on-again, off-again courtship of Mary Todd. The judgment of Mary’s family that Lincoln’s lack of social position made him an unsuitable match bothered him greatly because he tended to agree with them. On a deeper level, he confronted anxieties about women and sexuality that were rooted in his idealization of his mother. Through the aid and example of Joshua Speed, a male friend with whom he shared a bed for several years, Lincoln eventually overcame the paralyzing fear of committing himself to a woman.4

Strozier’s sensitive and persuasive analysis of the ensuing marriage deflates the popular myth that Mary was a shrew and Lincoln’s home life “a hell” without endorsing the view of some modern revisionists that the union was actually a happy and satisfying one for both parties. The complex reality that these stereotypes conceal involved a woman who wanted a father more than a husband and a man who was willing to play this part but sometimes found it necessary to limit his emotional commitment by withdrawing mentally or physically from his wife’s presence. Analyzing Lincoln’s affectionate but condescending letters to Mary, Strozier notes shrewdly that “Lincoln took away something vital as he provided crucial sustenance, distanced as he expressed love, and in every way forcefully clarified his position of authority. It is no wonder Mary idealized him; that was the only emotional position he allowed her to assume.” When Lincoln greatly increased his public activity after 1854, he ceased to give Mary the minimum of paternal “sustenance” that she needed, and the result was a long slide into mental illness. In Strozier’s words, “Deep childhood wounds reopened in Mary as distance between husband and wife increased.”

Failing as a husband—or at least as the kind of husband that his emotionally fragile and unstable wife required—Lincoln sought to make “a complex shift from a conflicted private world of meanings that never worked themselves out to a public arena of political rhetoric that Lincoln domesticated.” More specifically, he found a powerful family metaphor for the sectional crisis by describing the nation as “a house divided” and sought to stem a drift toward disunion and disorder analogous to the one he was unable to master in his own household.

So long as he sticks to Lincoln’s private life and the suggestive analogies between his personal and public concerns, Strozier is persuasive or at least plausible. It is not unreasonable to suppose that there was some correlation between Lincoln’s desire “to maintain his self-esteem in his relations with others” and his devotion to “the stability and cohesion of the political process itself.” A search for order and control can readily be viewed as the central theme of both his inner life and his public career.

If he had left it at that, Strozier’s book might serve as a model of careful, restrained psychobiography. Unfortunately, however, he includes a chapter on “The Group Self and the Crisis of the 1850s” which exhibits some of the defects of psychohistory at its worst. Here he attempts to explain the sectional crisis in general as a collective expression of narcissistic rage. Such literal-minded efforts to explain group behavior by individual psychology require a leap of faith that most historians are unwilling to make. Even George B. Forgie, in his earlier psychoanalytic intepretation of the same crisis, was careful to concede that nations do not literally have Oedipus complexes. Strozier, however, really seems to believe that there is a group psyche that can be analyzed in the same way one would diagnose the neurotic conflicts of a person. In supposing that slavery and “the slave power” were a deadly threat to the republic, he argues, Lincoln and other antislavery spokesmen were expressing paranoid rage of a “fragmenting self.”

  1. 1

    Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 99-130.

  2. 2

    George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided (Norton, 1979).

  3. 3

    See Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (Norton, 1958) and Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (Norton, 1969).

  4. 4

    A less conscientious psychohistorian might have assumed overt or latent homosexuality in the Lincoln-Speed relationship, ignoring the fact that heterosexual males in nineteenth-century America could innocently enjoy a kind of intimacy that would be incomprehensible today.

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