20 Great Historical Figures Who Struggled with Mental Illness

Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, c.1846-47. Wikimedia Commons

2. Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest Presidents in the history of the United States, and battled depression for most of his life

Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) is remembered as the President who oversaw the North’s victory over the Confederacy in the American Civil War. He demonstrated strong and determined leadership in one of America’s darkest hours, and at the time of his untimely assassination was working on ways to help the country recover from internal strife. Though his precise sentiments about racial equality are now debated, Lincoln was also responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in North America. Allied to his economic policies, all this makes Lincoln a popular choice for the greatest ever President of the United States.

A common and unhelpful myth about mental health is that one’s objective success or wealth should preclude issues such as depression. Lincoln is a case in point to prove that mental health problems arise regardless of circumstances. Arriving on stage at the Republican Convention of 1860 to a standing ovation, one onlooker described Lincoln as ‘one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw’. In fact, Lincoln had fought against depression for most of his life. As a young man, he had contemplated suicide several times, and his friends described his ‘melancholy’ as a defining character trait.

In 1838, Lincoln even anonymously published a poem, ‘Suicide’s Soliloquy’, in the Sangamo Journal. Its final, troubling lines were: ‘This heart I’ll rush a dagger through/Though I in hell should rue it!’ Lincoln’s bouts of ‘melancholy’ sometimes followed stressful events, such as the end of relationships or intense periods of work, but could also just occur naturally. At such times when, in the words of William Herndon, ‘his melancholy dripped from him as he walked’, he surprised people by telling jokes and reading humorous literature. Laughter, Lincoln, maintained, was essential for his survival. And thus, surely, that of his country.