Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings
Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality
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. 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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.