Lincoln, Luther, and The Crisis of Identity

In his psychoanalytic biography of Martin Luther, Erik Erikson notes “the curative as well as the creative role of work which…is so prominent in young Luther’s life, and in his views about work-and ‘works.’” Speaking of his own clinical experience Erikson writes, “experiments with the work life of…young patients indicate that patients in a climate of…planful work…can display an adaptive resourcefulness” (Erikson, pp. 17-18). This observation, borrowed from the discipline of psychoanalysis, has tremendous implications for American history. “Planful work” enabled Lincoln to overcome the most grueling trial his chronic depression posed. For Lincoln, the work to which he devoted himself became inseparable from his identity and his existence.

Lincoln understood the role that work had to play in overcoming psychological torment. In the winter of 1840-41, his best friend Joshua Speed announced his intention to move from Springfield back to his native Kentucky. This change, together with the temporary eclipse of Lincoln’s political fortunes and the dissolution of his engagement to Mary Todd, drove him into a depressive crisis in January of 1841. It was during this time that Lincoln wrote to his law partner John T. Stuart, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not [sic] tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

This quote conveys Lincoln’s pathological need for an emotional coping mechanism. In the clinical sense, he met Erikson’s definition of a “patient.” Quoting Kierkegaard’s claim that Luther was “a patient of exceeding import for Christendom,” Erikson writes, “patienthood [is] a sense of imposed suffering, of an intense need for cure, and…a ‘passion for expressing and describing one’s suffering’” (Erikson, p. 13). There can be little doubt that Lincoln met this definition in the winter of 1840-41. Speed, who tarried in Springfield through January, later said of this period, “Lincoln went Crazy-had to remove razors from his room-take away all Knives and other such dangerous things.” This thesis is an attempt to describe how Lincoln turned his patienthood, his “passion for expressing and describing suffering,” into a politial asset, and how Northern triumphalism threatened Lincoln’s psychological recovery.

After recovering, Lincoln was quickly called upon by Speed to offer encouragement as the latter grappled with grave doubts about his impending marriage. In a remarkable letter composed in early January of 1842, immediately before Speed left for his family’s plantation, Lincoln wrote, “it is reasonable that you will feel verry [sic] badly yet…because of three special causes, added to the general one which I shall mention” (Basler I, 265). The second “special” cause Lincoln identified as “the absence of all business and conversation of friends, which might divert your mind, and give it occasional rest from that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.” Lincoln adduced as the first “special” cause “your exposure to bad weather on your journey, which my experience clearly proves to be verry [sic] severe on defective nerves” (Speed’s “nervous temperament” being the “general cause” to which Lincoln referred above).

These passages demonstrate that, in addition to feeling an unusual amount of solicitude for his close friends, Lincoln also had an uncanny self-awareness of his own moods. Dorris Kearns Goodwin notes this aspect of Lincoln’s character in the introduction to Team of Rivals, her study of Lincoln’s cabinet and wartime leadership. Furthermore, by 1842 Lincoln had begun to develop methods for coping with his melancholia. The letter to Speed is autobiographical; Lincoln writes of “my experience.” It anticipates later letters in which he would say things to the effect of “You will soon feel better. I know this to be true.” Writing in December of 1862 to young Fanny McCullough, who was in mourning for her father (a close friend of Lincoln’s from his days as clerk of the McClean Country Court House in Bloomington who had been killed outside Coffeeville, Mississippi) the president said, “You can not [sic] now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say.” I think this was the trait that Shelby Foote had in mind when he said, “[Lincoln] had a remarkable ability to remove himself from himself as if he were looking at himself.” It was, as Foote concedes, “uncanny,” but also necessary to Lincoln’s existence.

Between 1840 and 1841, Lincoln experienced an “identity crisis,” for which Erikson provides the following definition: “it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be” (Erikson, p. 14). The stakes of this crisis are high: “Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements, passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art.”

Lincoln clearly fell into the latter category. The result of his identity crisis was to some extent predetermined. On April 28, 1832 Lincoln published a “Communication to the People of Sangamo[n] County” in preparation for his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. After paying homage to Whig support for internal improvements, Lincoln concluded his letter with an introspective appeal: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem” (Basler I, 8). In this sense the emergence of slavery expansion as the national issue during the 1850s was a profound psychological as well as political blessing for Lincoln. It allowed him to attach his name to a moral cause. As Shenk has noted, this cause was embodied in the Republican Party, an organization founded upon resistance to the expansion of slavery into the Mexican Cession. By bringing the slavery crisis to a head, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott of 1857 met Lincoln’s psychological, as well as his political, needs.

Lincoln, of course, had no way of knowing this in 1841. All he knew then was that his brief and relatively obscure political career seemed to be unraveling alongside his personal relationships. This plunged him in to the second of his two major depressive episodes. Erikson detects in the stories of Luther’s first Mass as an Augustinian novitiate a similar identity crisis. At one point during the service Luther is reported to have fallen to his knees, screaming “Ich bin’s nit!” (“I am not”) in the Erfurt choir. Erikson writes of this curious story, “The fit in the choir…belongs to a period when his career, as planned by his father, was dead; when his monastic condition, after a ‘godly’ beginning, had become problematic to him; and when his future was as yet in an embryonic darkness” (Erikson, p. 24).

Erikson evokes this “embryonic darkness” in relation to Luther’s “premonitions of death.” He writes, “I could not conceive of a young great man in the years before he becomes a great young man without assuming that inwardly he harbors a quite inarticulate stubbornness, a secret furious inviolacy, a gathering of impressions for eventual use within some as yet new configuration of thought-that he is tenaciously waiting it out for a day of vengeance when the semideliberate straggler will suddenly be found at the helm, and he who took so much will reveal the whole extent of his potential mastery. The counterpart of this waiting, however, is often a fear of an early death which would keep the vengeance from ripening into leadership; yet the young man often shows signs of precocious aging, of a melancholy wish for an early end, as if the anticipation of prospective deeds tired him. Premonitions of death occur throughout Luther’s career, but I think it would be too simple to ascribe them to a mere fear of death. A young genius has an implicit life plan to complete; caught by death before his time, he would be only a pathetic human fragment” (Erikson, p. 83).

Both men faced moments at which their lives seemed utterly deprived of meaning. Historical forces beyond their control (in Luther’s case, disillusionment with the Catholic Church) coincided with their search for meaning. Luther and Lincoln resolved their identity crises by devoting themselves to the causes that grew out of these historical forces. Erikson writes, “[t]he need for devotion…is one aspect of the identity crisis which we, as psychologists, make responsible for all these tendencies and susceptibilities” (Erikson, p. 42). He continues, “[a]nd when he [i.e., Luther] at last did embark on his stupendous lifework, he was almost delayed further by neurotic suffering. However, a creative man has no choice. He may come across his supreme task almost accidentally. But once the issue is joined, his task proves to be at the same time intimately related to his most personal conflicts, to his superior selective perception, and to the stubbornness of his one-way will: he must court sickness, failure, or insanity, in order to test the alternative whether the established world will crush him, or whether he will disestablish a sector of this world’s outworn fundaments and make a place for a new one” (Erikson, p. 46). The abstractness of Erikson’s language allows us to apply this description to Lincoln. What was his political career but a disestablishment of slavery as one of the fundaments of American society? Thus, when Lincoln wrote to supporters in the wake of his election as president that he “brought a heart devoted to the work,” he meant it.

Lincoln’s devotion to the work of resisting the expansion of slavery represented a delayed resolution of the identity crisis he encountered in the winter of 1840-41. Erikson writes that such crises are resolved when the patient acknowledges “the satisfaction of duty by accepting a limited position and its obligations…[H]e derives from the accrual of his sacrifices a coherent measure of historical identity” (Eriskon, pp. 112-113). In Lincoln’s case, this “coherent measure of historical identity” and its effect upon his emotional health is most evident in November of 1858, in the reaction to his loss to Stephen A. Douglas in a race for one of Illinois’s U.S. Senate seats. Writing to his political associate Norman P. Judd on November 15, 1858, Lincoln said, “let the past as nothing be. For the future my view is that the fight must go on…I shall be in no ones [sic] way for any of the places” (Basler III, pp. 336-337). In promulgating on a national stage the Republican Party’s moral repugnance over slavery and its resistance to the institution’s expansion, Lincoln felt he had “rendered himself worthy of other men’s esteem.” This enabled him to absorb the shock of losing to Douglas. Indeed, Lincoln almost seems to have relished his loss. “You are feeling badly,” he wrote to Judd on November 16. “’And this too shall pass away.’ Never fear.” Recurrent in letters to Henry Ashbury, Anson S. Miller, Eleazar A. Paine, M.M. Inman, and B. Clarke Lundy is his insistence that “the fight must go on.”

Lincoln explained his good spirits to Henry in the following way: “I am glad I made the late race. It gave me a hearing on the great and durable question of the age, which I could have had in no other way; and though I now sink out of view, and shall be forgotten, I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of liberty long after I am gone” (Basler III, 339). There is a characteristically Lincolnian sense of irony to this statement (recall that the Gettysburg Address claimed, “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here”). But, just as he could not have anticipated his role in the 1858 race during the winter of 1840-41, after his loss to Douglas he could not have conceived the historical stature to which he would ascend over the course of the next seven years. He could reconcile himself to his defeat by subsuming himself under the cause of the Republican Party, consoled by the thought that he had played some marginal role in its ultimate success. To Sharpe he wrote on December 8, “though I fall early in the contest, it is nothing if I shall have contributed, in the least degree, to the final rightful result” (Basler III, 344). On December 11, he wrote to Lyman Trumbull, the antislavery Democrat to whom Lincoln had ceded a prospective Senate seat in 1855. Trying to persuade his friend to desert Douglas’ party Lincoln wrote, “the Republican principle can in no wise live with Douglas; and it is arrant folly now…to waste time, and scatter labor already performed, in dallying with him” (Basler III, 345). Here we see Lincoln dispatching his fear of premature death by relying on an ideological movement that would outlast him. Indeed, in stark contrast to his correspondence with John Stuart in January of 1841, Lincoln wrote to Alexander Sympson on December 12, “I have an abiding faith that we shall beat them in the long run…I write merely to let you know that I am neither dead nor dying” (Basler III, 346). The work to which Lincoln devoted himself had overwhelmed his identity crisis.


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