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Lincoln's ailment
January 29, 2006 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Poor old Abe. He had an impressive medical history, as previously discussed. Will we ever figure out all his ailments? As an explanation for "his especially clumsy gait," one theory claims that he had Marfan's Syndrome (with good company). But now researchers are leaning more toward a new theory, that a gene-linked disorder called ataxia. But Lincoln also suffered from depression which could have been heriditary, for which he took "little blue pills" that gave him mercury poisoning, which could explain his insomnia, tremors and rage attacks, gait, and more. Of course, we also suspect that he was in the closet. Lincoln's DNA will continue to be a growth industry, at least until somebody can get hold of a sample of the old guy and figure him out for sure.
posted by beagle (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Amazing, all this speculation, despite the fact that his cause of death is undisputed.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:07 AM on January 29, 2006


Interesting and well-linked post. Having said that, I've never had much faith in diagnosing depression when the patient isn't around. In Doris Goodwin's new book Team of Rivals she brings up that Lincoln's melancholy is often brough up as the exception to his usual mood: jolly, telling jokes and stories, etc. Actually, he was probably one of our funnier presidents.
posted by marxchivist at 9:34 AM on January 29, 2006


A great page of Lincoln resources by Josh Shenk, the author of a very fine new book on Lincoln's depression called Lincoln's Melancholy.
posted by digaman at 9:58 AM on January 29, 2006


A great post, and nice additions, Digaman and Marxchivist.

The fun thing about presidential history is that so many American presidents are so psychologically complex, if not to say damaged. I think Goodwin misses the point, that Lincoln's absolutely compulsive story telling and joking around was his way of fighting his chronic depression. I have only read Shenk's Atlantic Monthly article and not his whole book, but I thought it persuasive. (On the other hand I just finished Goodwin's book yesterday, and it is not particularly good).
posted by LarryC at 10:19 AM on January 29, 2006


Am I the only one who finds these incessant attempts to translate our greatest president into modern parlance (depressed, in the closet, and so on) an affront to his dignity, and the powers that made him so unique?
posted by Hobbacocka at 10:20 AM on January 29, 2006


Also, from Shenk's page: Hard Drinkin' Lincoln!
posted by LarryC at 10:20 AM on January 29, 2006



Am I the only one who finds these incessant attempts to translate our greatest president into modern parlance (depressed, in the closet, and so on) an affront to his dignity


Probably not the only one, but I don't even agree that he is great. I think it is pretty interesting to delve into why he was so messed up.
posted by thirteen at 10:34 AM on January 29, 2006


these incessant attempts to translate our greatest president into modern parlance (depressed, in the closet, and so on) an affront to his dignity

I would think this if I thought either depression or homosexuality were affronts to a man's dignity. But I don't.

It's not unusual for scholars to attempt to illuminate a great man through the measuring instruments of their time, any more than it's unusual for each age to provide its own (necessarily limited) interpretations of Shakespeare's plays.

Sometimes I think this process goes too far, as in the case of Ellis Amburn's supposed outing of the "hidden" Jack Kerouac, which I thought was a fraud, mostly because Kerouac had been so open about his homoerotic impulses in his work, and the complexities of his own feelings about those feelings. Amburn's boiling of Kerouac down to a guilt-ridden closet case (when he was so clearly also attracted to women) seemed like a step backward for both understanding Kerouac and understanding gay identities.

So, I don't think there's any blanket rule about this sort of thing -- the quality of the scholarship speaks for itself.
posted by digaman at 10:42 AM on January 29, 2006


Why he was so messed up.

He lived in messed up times. That is the only explanation for why he is, in fact, our absolutely worst president ever. The man botched the Civil War, sending a good 300,000 of his own men to their deaths in one ridiculous military campaign after another. He set up a police state that makes George W. Bush's phone-tapping look pretty innocent. For that matter, he jailed thousands of political opponents and held them for months, if not years, without trial.
Of course, everybody says in defense of his incredibly violent and vicious war, "But it freed the slaves, didn't it?" To which I say: "Do you mean to tell me, that if the Civil War hadn't have been fought, slaves would still be picking cotton in the south?" I think not. In fact, some means of manumission may have come about that would have spared us the lynching years of reconstruction, the Jim Crow laws, the ghetto riots of the 1960s, and all the other racial difficulties that have plagued our nation since then.
If Lincoln was depressed, it was because he had more blood on his hands than Lady Macbeth. I wouldn't be able to sleep, either.
posted by Faze at 10:45 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze, is there a single subject on God's Earth on which you don't have some aggravatingly idiotic, perversely ill-informed, and intellectually bogus faux-controversial opinion?
posted by digaman at 10:55 AM on January 29, 2006


Amen, Digaman. Just take the example of Lincoln's sexuality. The recent book on the topic is really pretty suggestive, it makes a strong case that Lincoln had a powerful attraction towards men, though wether he acted on it is in doubt. To immediately condemn this line of inquiry as ridiculous or as somehow blackening the reputation of a great man is pure homophobia. You can argue with the evidence if you like, but let's examine that evidence.

A similar situation existed for years regarding Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Even without the DNA, there was a powerful case that Jefferson had fathered children with his slave. The refusal of the Jefferson lobby (I almost wrote the Jefferson mafia) to even seriously consider the issue had everything to do with racist ideas about the evils of miscegenation and so on.

Lincoln was our greatest president because he was such a great man, and it worth exploring his character with whatever tools come our way.
posted by LarryC at 10:55 AM on January 29, 2006


heh, I know Larry didn't mean to "amen" my anti-Faze phaser blast. But thanks.
posted by digaman at 10:57 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze, you're forgetting about Sherman's march to the sea. The bloodshed was so worth it to see the south laid waste.

Lincoln wasn't quite FDR, but he was pretty damn cool.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:58 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze, there is a huge historical consensus that slavery was growing stronger and more profitable in the south in the 1850s. It is hard to imagine how a peaceful emancipation would have occurred, unless it was generations later. And while it absolutely true that the North botched the early years of the war, Lincoln was in a tough position, saddled with an incompetent but enormously popular McClellan and with no good alternative in sight. And to lay the bloodshed of the Civil War at the fet of Lincoln, rather than the secessionists, is simply perverse.
posted by LarryC at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze was bombastic, but there is a lot of historical truth in there. None of us would enjoy living under his rule.
posted by thirteen at 11:00 AM on January 29, 2006


There are needles of historical truth ("he jailed thousands of political opponents and held them for months, if not years, without trial... sending a good 300,000 of his own men to their deaths") in the usual haystack of horseshit ("he set up a police state that makes George W. Bush's phone-tapping look pretty innocent... some means of manumission may have come about that would have spared us the lynching years, the Jim Crow laws, the ghetto riots of the 1960s, and all the other racial difficulties that have plagued our nation since then... if Lincoln was depressed, it was because he had more blood on his hands than Lady Macbeth").
posted by digaman at 11:10 AM on January 29, 2006


Do you mean to tell me, that if the Civil War hadn't have been fought, slaves would still be picking cotton in the south?

No, they'd be picking oranges.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:12 AM on January 29, 2006


At the very least, Lincoln was responsible for rushing General Burnside into the futile, insane battle of Fredricksburg, which was so incredibly mismanaged that 13,000 Union troops were slaughtered by a comparatively tiny force of Confederates. Think about that folks: 13,000 human lives wiped out in three days by sheer presidential incompetence. That's more Americans than we are likely to lose in Iraq, even if the war goes on for another five years.
And SO WHAT if slavery weren't ended unil a generation or so later than the Civil War? The slaves were freed at the cost of 600,000 lives. I'll just assume, for the moment, the point of view of the dead, and say, it just wasn't worth it. Not when there was potentially ANY other solution.
What if someone said, "With the deaths of 600,000 people, we could end international terrorism tomorrow." Would you accept that price?
We've hung this murky pseudo-religious atmosphere over the Civil War that keeps us from looking at it clearly. It was a wild slaughter-fest by murder-crazed, horse riding Hells Angels with ornate beards and asinine-to-nonexistent political opinions.
If we accept that the life of the common soldier was at least as valuable as Lincoln's, the president's assassination loses some of its sacred gloss. And if we stop seeing the death of 600,000 people (many poor and working-class draftees) as a "sacrifice" that won the slaves their freedom, we can see that the Civil War was our own little Cambodia, our own little Holocaust, and Lee and Grant and Lincoln, etc., were the Pol Pots that pulled it off.
posted by Faze at 11:25 AM on January 29, 2006


Oh yeah, and how about the fact that virtually every major player in the Civil War (except maybe Grant, Lincoln and MacClellan) was a hard-core Christian fundamentalist? That (as Lincoln suggested in his second Inaugeral), mowed down their enemies with prayers in their mouths, starved prisoners with prayerbooks in their hands, and quoted scripture while put the torch to farms and orphanages?
How can anyone who hates the Bush administration defend all that?
posted by Faze at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2006


We've hung this murky pseudo-religious atmosphere over the Civil War that keeps us from looking at it clearly

An excellent point.
posted by digaman at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2006


It was a wild slaughter-fest

Sure, but it was a time when every war was a slaughter-fest -- including, for a few more decades, the war on the American Indians. In fact, the whole idea of not targeting civilians, of taking extreme pains to avoid "collateral damage", is a pretty recent idea. It certainly did not apply in the Big One, witness the carpet bombing of Japanese and German cities. So by that same brush is tarred not only Lincoln but every wartime president at least through Johnson. Lincoln made costly mistakes but did so because he felt his generals should take more risks, rather than planning and organizing forever and getting nowhere militarily. He didn't find the man who would take those risks until he elevated Grant.
posted by beagle at 11:44 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze,

Prior to the start of the civil war, slaves were getting less rights, not more. The South passed more and more laws against blacks every year. Nor was the South non-violent before the war; I suggest you read about their activities in Kansas, particularly with regards to vote rigging.

we can see that the Civil War was our own little Cambodia, our own little Holocaust

Nope, slavery itself was the holocaust. And believe it or not, Holocausts don't end because the murders wake up one day and say, "Hey, we should be nicer people." They end because someone makes them end.

And SO WHAT if slavery weren't ended unil a generation or so later than the Civil War?

Ask Harriet Tubman, whose overseer beat her head with a brick when she was a child. Ask the parents who watched their children being sold to another plantation owner. Ask the slaves who wanted to learn and were forbidden to read. Ask them if they were willing to wait. Ask the women who were continually raped and watched their children die at a child mortality rate of 66-90%. Some things are worth dying for. I consider the freedom of 4 and a half million people to be one of them. I am sorry that you do not.
posted by unreason at 11:44 AM on January 29, 2006


Faze, ideally a day will come when you will both hear and feel a loud *popping* sound. That sound will be your head coming out of your ass.
posted by stenseng at 12:32 PM on January 29, 2006


virtually every major player in the Civil War . . . was a hard-core Christian fundamentalist

Yes and no. Many Americans of the time were much influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival. But even the most fervent of them would not have qualified as fundamentalists in our current climate. For one thing, they did not believe in Biblical inerrancy, the doctrine that every word in the Bible is literally true as written. That came later in the 19th century. And they might very well have had doubts about biblical miracles and the divinity of Jesus.
posted by LarryC at 12:47 PM on January 29, 2006


Ask Harriet Tubman, whose overseer beat her head with a brick

Ask the Irish draftee who is lying wounded in the battle of the Wilderness, as the brush around him ignites, and he is slowly burned to death. Ask the wounded man who lies untended three days after the Battle of Cold Harbor, expiring in hideous agony of his wounds. The evil of slavery is not atoned for by the death of innocent, poor and working class whites. That is a phoney, religious-style "sacrifice" mentality at work.

So by that same brush is tarred not only Lincoln but every wartime president at least through Johnson.

Precisely, Beagle. And let's not forget craze-ball generals like MacArthur, who blithely spilled the blood of thousands of Marines on the beaches of obscure Pacific Islands for no damned good reason, except some cockamamie "island hopping" strategy that had no effect whatsoever on the war in the Pacific.
posted by Faze at 1:51 PM on January 29, 2006


Some things are worth dying for. I consider the freedom of 4 and a half million people to be one of them. I am sorry that you do not.

unreason, it's very easy for you, and Lincoln, and Grant, etc. to sound noble on this subject. You yourself are entitled to die for the freedom of slaves, but you are not entitled to ask me to die for the freedom of slaves. Especially when there are 10,000 peaceful alternatives available. And once again, you are using religious, "magical" thinking that says

Sacrificing 600,000 lives = Freedom of slaves.

The slaves could have waited a few more years. For as miserable as their lives were, they were alive, unlike 21,000 men at Antietam, whose lives and stories and hope ended pretty abruptly that day.
posted by Faze at 2:11 PM on January 29, 2006


I'm willing to entertain contrarian ideas about Lincoln and the Civil War. Faze, on the other hand, is getting lap-dances.
posted by dhartung at 2:32 PM on January 29, 2006


10,000 peaceful alternatives available.

Such as?
posted by LarryC at 2:40 PM on January 29, 2006


Clicking around Shenk's site turned up a PDF of his Atlantic article on Lincoln's depression.
posted by LarryC at 5:17 PM on January 29, 2006


Larry C -- The 10,000 alternatives might include anything that doesn't involve killing 600,000 people, very few of whom owned slaves, or even knew anyone who knew slaves -- or for that matter, even gave a shit about slavery one way or another. The Civil War was a conflict where hundreds of men gave their lives to defend their regimental banners, for crying out loud. Perhaps that could have been avoided?
posted by Faze at 6:40 PM on January 29, 2006


We've hung this murky pseudo-religious atmosphere over the Civil War that keeps us from looking at it clearly

I agree with this. People often think of the Civil War, as if the Union decided one day to start a war to free the slaves, but it's more complicated than that. Abolition was a fringe idea for much of the war. In 1862, Lincoln wrote that, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Black people were lynched in New York City during the July 1863 New York Draft Riots by people resisting the draft. The war evolved into a war to free the slaves, and this paralleled an evolution in Lincoln.

a phoney, religious-style 'sacrifice' mentality at work

There was an explicit feeling later in the Civil War that lives had to be sacrificed to attone for the sin of slavery. Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the Union's unofficial theme song, says, "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865, Lincoln said:
... [God] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came...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...
While we're comparing Lincoln and Bush, Lincoln's call later in his speech "to bind up the nation's wounds" "with malice toward none, with charity for all," was one of the greatest moments of his presidency. Bush missed two opportunities, after his hotly contested first election and after the September 11 attacks, to similarly unify and heal a divided nation. He chose both times to exploit the situation for partisan gain.

Lincoln was responsible for rushing General Burnside into the futile, insane battle of Fredricksburg

That's not what Burnside said in his official report (my emphasis):
I have the honor to offer the following reasons for moving the Army of the Potomac across the Rappahannock sooner than was anticipated by the President, Secretary, or yourself, and for crossing at a point different from the one indicated to you at our last meeting at the President's
...
The fact that I decided to move from Warrenton onto this line rather against the opinion of the President, Secretary, and yourself, and that you have left the whole management in my hands, without giving me orders, makes me the more responsible.
Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, 1862; the battle began on December 13. Where's the rush? Also, he reports 10,152 casualties (1,152 killed and 9,000 wounded), with "1,630 only being treated in hospitals," not "13,000 human lives wiped out."
posted by kirkaracha at 6:58 PM on January 29, 2006


kirkarach -- Thanks for the correction on the numbers. I wrote in haste. But, I'd like to point out that Burnside was trying to please Lincoln, whose irritation at MacClellan's leisurely approach to war burst forth after Antietam. Burnside knew Lincoln wanted attack, attack, attack, and tried to give it to him.
And Burnside's self-inculpation sounds suspiciously like he was taking one for the team, to me.
In any case, it was one more botched battle, in a series of botched war moves that began with First Bull Run, and ran all the way through Cold Harbor. Only Grant's massive indifference to human life kept the Union war machine plugging along until the rebels were worn out.
The world is full of books and movies that attack George Bush for his mismanagment of our current war. Out of all the tens of thousands of book about Lincoln, where is the one that takes him to task for his bad decisions? These decisions wasted tens of thousands of lives. More Americans died violently and unnecessarily under the Lincoln administration than any presidency in history. Yet historians never call him to account for it.
As soon as anyone starts closing in on Lincoln, a chorus of low voices begins to hum "The Battle Hymm of the Republic," and we see that flag-draped box at Ford's Theater, and all critical thinking goes out the window.
posted by Faze at 5:51 AM on January 30, 2006


I'd call McClennan's approach to war almost cowardly after his performance in the Peninsula Campaign, where he had a 2-1 numerical advantage but was tricked by fake cannons made out of trees and Confederates walking around in circles through clearings into thinking the Confederates had the advantage.

McClellan also had a copy of Robert E. Lee's battle plans before Antietam and could have attacked while Lee's army was divided, but he waited 18 hours before acting. No wonder Lincoln was impatient.

At Antietam (the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with 23,000 casualties), Burnside previewed the approach he would later use at Fredericksburg by sending three assaults in three hours across a defended bridge, without scouting to find the shallow places nearby that he could have forded the river.

Botched war moves didn't begin or end with the Civil War, and there's a long sad history of using old tactics against new weapons. (For example, it should have been immediately obvious to World War I commanders that charging entrenched machine guns doesn't work, but they kept it up throughout the war.) Lee repeated the mistake of an uphill assault against dug-in troops at Gettysburg, and Grant repeated it at Cold Harbor.

Only Grant's massive indifference to human life kept the Union war machine plugging along until the rebels were worn out.

The Grant-as-butcher assessment has been reconsidered by recent historians. He "lost fewer men in his successful effort to take Richmond and end the war than his predecessors lost in making the same attempt and failing," and Lee lost a higher percantage of his own troops than Grant did. Grant emphasized maneuver over direct assault in his Vicksburg Campaign, which was brilliant, and his Overland Campaign, which resulted in a lot of battles because Lee was effective at matching Grant's maneuvers until Grant pinned him down at Petersburg.

Lee beat Grant at the the Wilderness, the first battle of the Overland Campaign, like he had beaten all of the Union generals before Grant. Instead of repeating the pattern of the earlier generals and withdrawing for months, Grant kept coming. The only way to win the war was to get hold of Lee's army and not let go until the war was over, and that's what Grant did.

The world is full of books and movies that attack George Bush for his mismanagment of our current war. Out of all the tens of thousands of book about Lincoln, where is the one that takes him to task for his bad decisions?

Lincoln said he wanted to preserve the Union, and later in the war he said he wanted to free the slaves. Mission accomplished. Bush, not so much.

And an Amazon search for book about Bush looks pretty evenly split between pro and con, with more pro if you exlude the jokey Bushism-type books.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:32 PM on January 30, 2006


Faze is one of my favorite users
posted by matteo at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2006


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