The Melancholic Statesman

In her ‘Introduction’ to Team of Rivals (2005), Dorris Kearns Goodwin writes:

‘Before I began this book, aware of the sorrowful aspect of his features and the sadness attributed to him by his contemporaries, I had assumed that Lincoln suffered from chronic depression. Yet, with the exception of two despondent episodes in his early life that are described in this story, there is no evidence that he was immobilized by depression. On the contrary, even during the worst days of the war, he retained his ability to function at a very high level.

‘To be sure, he had a melancholy temperament, most likely imprinted on him from birth. But melancholy differs from depression. It is not an illness; it does not proceed from a specific cause; it is an aspect of one’s nature. It has been recognized by artists and writers for centuries as a potential source of creativity and achievement.

‘Moreover, Lincoln possessed an uncanny understanding of his shifting moods, a profound self-awareness that enabled him to find constructive ways to alleviate sadness and stress. Indeed, when he is compared with his colleagues, it is clear that he possessed the most even-tempered disposition of them all. Time and again, he was the one who dispelled his colleagues’ anxiety and sustained their spirits with his gift for storytelling and his life-affirming sense of humor. When resentment and contention threatened to destroy his administration, he refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights. Through the appalling pressures he faced day after day, he retained an unflagging faith in his country’s cause.’ -Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, xvii

I feel this passage accounts for several oversights burrowed within the otherwise trenchant and mellifluous analysis of William Manchester’s The Last Lion (Vol. I, 1983. Little, Brown). The book’s composition during the early 1980s shows heavily, among other places, in the assumptions that Manchester makes regarding Churchill’s melancholia. Observing that ‘depression is common among the great,’ balancing as it does ‘their feelings of omnipotence,’ the former journalist claims the malady afflicted Lincoln, alongside Robert E. Lee, Tolstoy, Bismarck, and Martin Luther.This after he concedes an ignorance of the disease’s etiology, one which (understandably) lags far behind our nuanced and thoroughly-researched approach to mental health in the present day.

Notwithstanding his cumbersome use of Lincoln’s name, it should not escape notice that two such illustrious biographers accord pride of place to discussions of their quarries’ melancholic temperaments. We see in both men a tangible connection between their psychological disposition and their impact upon history. This connection bears some examination.

J. Rufus Fears, professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, distinguishes between the characteristics of ‘statesmen’ and ‘politicians’ thus (cf. The Great Courses’ [registered trademark] lecture on Churchill]:

‘Churchill joins Pericles of Athens and Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest statesmen in the history of democracy.

‘We distinguish a statesman from a politician by four criteria:

  1. a bedrock of principles;
  2. a moral compass;
  3. a vision;
  4. the ability to build consensus to achieve that vision.’

What role did melancholia play in moulding their principles and in implementing their vision? (Note that both The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provide clinical definitions for the term ‘melancholia.’ I use the word more liberally throughout, adhering closely to the distinction that Goodwin makes at the outset of her book. Though I think Churchill grappled with full-blown depression, the two men clustered together on an emotional spectrum that transcends the capacity of most other people).

Fears’ analysis is unambiguous. ‘Churchill’s bedrock of principles was his devotion to liberty.’ The cynic can, upon reading this, be forgiven his impulse to introduce the specter of Indian independence, a topic that aroused an almost pathological belligerence in Churchill. Manchester saw in it a manifestation of the aggression attendant upon manic depression. Though HBO’s The Gathering Storm engages in some superfluous flights of melodrama (to say nothing of its egregious decision to cast the young Hugh Bonneville as a devious parliamentarian wedded to Stanley Baldwin’s policy of appeasement), it does paint in stark colours the chasm between the British public’s accession to Indian self-government and Churchill’s vitriolic denunciations of Gandhi, whom he once described as a ‘seditious Middle Temple lawyer.’

But if he could become chauvinistic when it came to addressing the disintegration of Britain’s empire, many of Churchill’s most uplifting speeches during the Second World War depended upon his soaring disdain for Nazi despotism. In October of 1940, he concluded an address to Occupied France with this exhortation:

‘Good night, then. Sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and true, kindly upon all who suffer for the cause, gloriously upon the tombs of heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.’ (

The rhetorical effect that the image of a resurgent dawn might have had was lost to Churchill’s addition of this coda:

‘Vive la France! Long live also the forward march of the common people in all the lands towards their just and true inheritance, and towards the broader and fuller age.’

He prefaced his ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech by universalizing the threat that Nazi Germany represented to Great Britain:

‘Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.’ (Manchester, p. 6)

It was clear that the ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ towards which the Prime Minister lifted the British public did not exclude the Continent. His capacity to evoke such resilience from his listeners, then and now, depends in part upon the emotive power with which he manipulated the English language. A quote variously attributed to the American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and President Kennedy posits that he ‘mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,’ belying the uncharacteristically modest concession that Churchill made during his 80th birthday party: ‘It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart; I had the luck to be called upon to give the war’ (Manchester, p. 7). As Manchester himself notes, ‘it is impossible to imagine Franklin Roosevelt offering blood, toil, tears, and sweat, but the expression would have come naturally from Lincoln’ (Manchester, p. 23). The implication is ineluctable: Churchill had access to a rhetorical treasure trove that remained off-limits to FDR’s buoyant optimism.

Lincoln’s ‘devotion to liberty’ elicits more controversy. Steven Spielberg’s recent biopic certainly characterizes our sixteenth president as an ‘enlightened pragmatist,’ one who faced down great political peril in order to bring about the end of slavery. Much of the film features his efforts to delay the arrival of a Confederate peace embassy, one that would have removed the military impetus driving the ratification of the 13th Amendment. There may be some truth to this characterization.

Throughout the conflict, Lincoln found himself in the awkward position of mollifying abolitionists at home and abroad while also courting the border states of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, whose fealty to the Union enabled them to retain the institution of slavery. In A World on Fire, a monumental chronicle of Britain’s diplomatic relations with the Union and Confederacy, Amanda Foreman recounts an exchange between the President and his ambassador to Spain. Carl Schurz told Lincoln that his government might find more sympathy in Europe if it stopped obfuscating its abolitionist goals, recording Lincoln’s response in his diary:

‘”You may be right. Probably you are. I have been thinking so myself. I cannot imagine that any European power would dare to recognize and aid the Southern Confederacy if it becomes clear that the Confederacy stands for slavery and the Union for freedom.” Then he explained to me that, while a distinct anti-slavery policy would remove the foreign danger…he was in doubt as to whether public opinion at home was yet sufficiently prepared for it. He was anxious to unite, and keep united, all the forces of Northern society and of the Union element in the South, especially the Border States, in the war for the Union. Would not the cry of “abolition war” such as might be occasioned by a distinct anti-slavery policy, tend to disunite those forces and thus weaken the Union cause? This was the doubt that troubled him, and it troubled him very much.’ (A World on Fire, 2010. Random House. pp. 238-239)

Set against this quintessentially Lincolnian pragmatism is what I hesitatingly refer to as the president’s spiritual response to the vast bloodshed that occurred during the Civil War. A comparative reading of his First ( and Second ( Inaugural addresses sheds some light upon what transpired within Lincoln’s heart and mind between 1861 and 1865.

The former is methodically legalistic, setting forth a constitutional argument against the validity of secession. Its penultimate appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature’ is one of the few rhetorical gems contained therein. The latter is much shorter. It foregoes allusions to America’s constitutional heritage and appeals instead to universals. Telling is the last paragraph, in which Lincoln seems to conceive of the conflict as divine retribution for the perpetuation of slavery:

‘The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”‘

This religious idiom echoes Lincoln’s posthumously entitled ‘Meditation on the Divine Will’ (;cc=lincoln;type=simple;rgn=div1;q1=Meditation%20on%20the%20Divine%20Will;view=text;subview=detail;sort=occur;idno=lincoln5;node=lincoln5%3A893). Recovered from Lincoln’s desk by his secretary John Hay after the assassination, a memo marked ‘September, 1862’ gives us an image of the man in his melancholic element:

‘The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.’

It may not have been melancholia per se that led to this insight. But the traits for which melancholics are known-intimate self-knowledge and brooding, isolated periods of reflection-must have played some role.

In any case, we see in these dilatory excursions through history Lincoln and Churchill relying upon their intuition and their instincts. The downfall of Nazi Germany and the abolition of slavery each represented the culmination of complex and well-documented social forces. After the advent of Howard Zinn, it has become the task of the historian to incorporate this multiplicity of sources into our narrative of the past. But History needs great men, too, try as we might to deny it. As Barbara Fields notes in Ken Burns’ Civil War, the cataclysmic struggle between North and South became inevitable as soon as the United States was established in independence from Great Britain with slavery still a part of its heritage. Though the observation has become trite for anyone with a secondary school education, Hitler’s rise after Versailles was equally preordained. Yet we still required a Lincoln and a Churchill to comprehend and then explicate in matchless prose the broad sweep of the events in which we participated. It is this process of comprehension and explication, what Bismarck referred to as ‘listening to the passing hoofbeat of history and leaping for the rider’s coattails,’ that ultimately defines a statesman.

Perhaps a drooping face and a soft-spoken manner needn’t be a disqualification for office in our stultifying age of gape and gloat.


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