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.”
This approach, it seems to me, substitutes dubious theorizing for a close examination of the historical record. The crisis of the 1850s may have had an irrational component, but most of what happened can be explained as a conflict of interests and ideologies rooted in the objective fact that one section was committed to slavery and the other to free labor. There were mistakes and misconceptions, to be sure, but most of them were founded on circumstantial evidence that only appears misleading in the hindsight of historians.
A good case in point is the one that Strozier seizes on as evidence of pathological rage—the belief of Lincoln and others that there was a conspiracy in the 1850s to extend slavery and make its protection the dominant concern of the nation as a whole. There was no such conspiracy in the sense of a well coordinated plot by a few powerful people. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, and the effort made by a Democratic administration in 1858 to admit Kansas to the Union under a fraudulent, pro-slavery constitution could all be interpreted by sane and reasonable men as deliberate efforts to strengthen the power of the slave states at the expense of those committed to free labor.
When Lincoln and the Republicans declared their resistance to these policies they were not being “paranoid,” but were confronting a genuine challenge to deeply held convictions about what was best for the country. Strozier’s interpretation, stripped of its psychoanalytic paraphernalia, amounts to a rehash of the “revisionist” interpretation of the causes of the Civil War that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. This viewpoint—which attributed a “needless war” to “hysteria,” extremism, and irrational leadership—has proved unacceptable to a later generation of historians. For the past two decades, most writers on the origins of the Civil War have assumed that the antislavery ideas and ideologies that provoked Southern secession are not reducible to psychopathology but deserve to be respected as rational expressions of moral commitment. The fact that individuals may invest their personal conflicts in a public cause—as Lincoln may have done to some degree—does not justify treating the cause itself as the neurosis of an individual writ large. It is a pity that Strozier’s otherwise perceptive and convincing study is marred by this flight into psychohistorical reductionism.
Dwight G. Anderson’s Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality is less an example of psychobiography than a study of the psychological roots of political mythology. As a political scientist inspired by the counterculture neo-Freudianism that found favor with the New Left in the 1960s, Anderson is determined to portray Lincoln as partially to blame for the dangerous and destructive impulses behind twentieth-century American imperialism. Unlike Strozier, who is basically sympathetic to Lincoln and almost pious about the achievements of his presidency, Anderson seeks to destroy Lincoln’s reputation as American hero and benefactor of humanity.
Building on Edmund Wilson’s argument, Anderson interprets the Lyceum speech as evidence of an overweening sense of personal destiny that could only be fulfilled if Lincoln overthrew the constitutional order established by the Founding Fathers and remade the Union in his own image. Besides making much of the prediction that a “towering genius” will arise, Anderson puts great stress on the part of the speech in which Lincoln refers to the nation’s need for a “political religion.” Lincoln’s subsequent career is presented as a sustained and successful struggle to realize these youthful fantasies. As president, he literally becomes the “tyrant” he prophesied, re-founds the Union on a new basis, symbolically “kills” the Founding Fathers, and establishes a “political religion” based on the conviction that God is on the side of a purified nation that now has the right and duty to serve as “lawgiver to the world.” Ergo, Vietnam.
As far-fetched as this thesis may sound in bald and simplified summary, it is accompanied by some clever detective work and argument. Anderson is on firm ground when he argues that the young Lincoln’s political thought and rhetoric were decisively influenced by one of the few books he had available to him as a child—Parson Mason Weems’s popular biography of Washington. The basic attitudes and even some of the language in the Lyceum speech can be traced to this source. In his farewell address (reprinted in the Weems volume) Washington advocated the encouragement of religion as an essential underpinning for orderly republican government. Weems himself preached that the kind of private piety and morality supposedly exemplified by Washington was the true foundation for public virtue and achievement. Not being a church member or even a believing Christian at the time of the Lyceum speech, Lincoln could not base his claim to leadership on personal religiosity, so he began a process of investing political institutions themselves with religious significance in order to encourage a civic piety to which he could subscribe.
Anderson sees Lincoln as trying until the 1850s to be a loyal son of Washington. Agreeing with Forgie and Strozier, he maintains that an idealized historical father temporarily displaced the rejected Thomas Lincoln. But cosmic ambition reasserted itself when Lincoln became a protagonist in the sectional conflict. He now saw a chance to duplicate the achievements of the American revolutionaries and take Washington’s place as the founder of the country. Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence rather than Washington and the Constitution, became his touchstones in battling the expansion of slavery—which suggests to Anderson that he was becoming a rebellious rather than a dutiful son.
As president, Lincoln fulfilled his self-appointed destiny when he used the powers of his office to found a new Union. In the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, he united the religious and the political by viewing the Civil War as a divinely ordained occasion for national sacrifice and purification. At the same time, he projected himself into the role of redeemer and set the stage for his own apotheosis as the incarnation of America’s “political religion.” According to Anderson, the mythic Lincoln was a conscious creation of the real Lincoln.
Lincoln’s ambition to be the greatest and most revered of all Americans was, Anderson argues, “rooted in what can only be described as an obsession about death.” Following the theories of Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker, he reviews the evidence for Lincoln’s morbid turn of mind and explains his alleged megalomania as a narcissistic desire for immortality:
This flight from death and obliteration, the desire to conquer death by becoming father of himself, had a particular urgency with Lincoln. His project of becoming “God” worked itself out in both a private and a public context, against both his natural father and his political father [Washington], with the result that a personal death anxiety became transformed into a symbolic immortality both for himself and the nation.
One has to admire the sheer conceptual brilliance of Anderson’s probe into Lincoln’s psyche. But there are two serious problems with his interpretation. He has built an elaborate structure of argumentation on a very shaky empirical foundation, and he pushes his theory so far that it strains credibility. Both of these defects are apparent in his analysis of the Lyceum speech.
In the first place, the main ideas set forth in the address were not unique to Lincoln but were shared by many others of the same political and professional persuasion. During the 1830s, Whigs—and especially Whig lawyers—often called for devotion to law and order and warned against Caesarean demagogues. The evil genius they generally had in mind was Andrew Jackson, who had enormously enlarged the powers of the presidency by persuading the electorate that he was the direct representative of the popular will. Whigs like Lincoln saw the danger of an elective tyranny in Jacksonian democracy and viewed mob violence as a sign that the common people were following Jackson’s bad example by putting popular emotion ahead of a “rational” adherence to established legal and constitutional procedures. The nonpartisan occasion for the Lyceum speech prevented Lincoln from making these political implications explicit; but in other early addresses he inveighed against the Jacksonian Democrats for fostering a “mobocratic spirit.” If Lincoln waxed strangely lyrical in describing the would-be tyrants against which the public must be on guard, it might have been because he shared his era’s sentimental fascination with amoral geniuses. (Napoleon or Byron could cast a strange spell on puritanical, middle-class Americans.)
I am not denying that the speech may reveal some deeper, more personal motives; but it is surely incumbent on the psychohistorian to take the context into account in order to get a sense of what remains to be explained. Here, as elsewhere in his study, Anderson fails to do this. He conveys little or no awareness of the cultural and political milieu within which Lincoln worked, and this lacuna makes his assumption that Lincoln’s thought was the peculiar product of his own psychological tensions hard to accept. The same limitation appears in his discussion of Lincoln’s position in the 1850s. His claim that there were “few Republican principles” until “Lincoln defined them in the debates [with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858]” flies in the face of recent scholarship showing that the Republicans were a highly ideological party from the time of their founding in 1854.5 It gives too much importance to Lincoln to claim that he invented basic Republican principles. What he did was articulate them in an exceptionally eloquent and politically effective way.
Anderson’s contention that Lincoln aspired from the time of the Lyceum speech to found a national political religion with himself as the main object of veneration is also based on a questionable reading of the sources. Returning again to the basic text, we find that it was “reverence for the laws” that Lincoln hoped would become “the political religion of the nation.” A common-sense interpretation would be that Lincoln was using religion as a metaphor and not literally advocating a merging of the sacred and the secular behind a mythical nationalism.
In another early speech—this one on the temperance question—Lincoln referred disapprovingly to the theocratic tendencies of some antebellum reform movements. The invocation of God in his great wartime addresses can be adequately explained as an exalted kind of “foxhole religion.” How else, in language comprehensible to the culture in which he lived, could Lincoln justify the huge suffering of the Civil War and his own part in prolonging it without claiming that the nation’s trial was ordained by Providence? To his credit, he eschewed the popular jingoistic theory that God was on the side of the North, and conceded that the Almighty had his own purposes, which probably involved punishing the nation as a whole for its long history of tolerating slavery. Personally, I do not find Lincoln’s version of “crisis theology” to be pathological and do not see very much of it reflected in later American nationalism and imperialism.
What is most implausible about Anderson’s theory, however, is that it forces us to accept one of two possibilities: either Lincoln was an unlikely historical accident or he was a figure considerably larger than life. How, we might ask, could anyone so filled with megalomania have functioned most of the time as a normal, rational human being? If we take Anderson literally, we have the case study of a man many psychiatrists would judge to be clinically insane, who, because of a combination of his own diabolical cleverness and the accidents of history, succeeded in realizing his wildest fantasies.
The role that Lincoln plays in Anderson’s script even seems to require that he be assassinated. A chapter on Lincoln’s journey to Washington is subtitled “A Rehearsal for Martyrdom,” and elsewhere Anderson alleges that Lincoln’s emphasis in the Gettysburg Address on the redeeming effect of sacrifice “helped to ensure that the meaning of his own death would be properly interpreted.” But unless one credits Lincoln with superhuman powers, there was no way he could have, known that he would provide myth makers with a president martyred on Good Friday at the very moment when it was evident that he had saved the Union.6 He might have been shot earlier or not at all. If he had lived, he might have failed to solve the difficult problems of Reconstruction and gone down in history as an important president but as less than the dominant national hero that he supposedly was determined to become. In effect, Anderson has created a new myth of Lincoln as Shakespearean usurper and evil genius of American politics that is not much closer to reality than the idealized, heroic Lincoln of patriotic legend. He has written good drama but poor history.
July 15, 1982
Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 99-130. ↩
George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided (Norton, 1979). ↩
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). ↩
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. ↩
See especially Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1970). Anderson cites Foner but does not seem to have understood his argument. ↩
It is not inconceivable that some day someone will claim that Lincoln arranged his own assassination. Such a theory would not be much more fanciful than the contention, recently given considerable play in the mass media, that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and some of his Radical Republican cohorts were behind the plot to kill Lincoln. Another new book, Thomas Reed Turner’s Beware the People Weeping: Public Opinion and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Louisiana State University Press, 1982) weighs the evidence for this and other theories alleging that there was a coverup to protect the real perpetrators and reveals how flimsy it really is. Turner describes the initial effort to put the blame on Confederate leaders as a natural outgrowth of the emotions of the time and concludes that those actually charged with the crime received a reasonably fair trial. His well-researched and judicious study can be strongly recommended to those who are curious about what can actually be proved about the assassination and its aftermath. ↩