The Suicide’s Soliloquy
June 7, 2004 11:14 AM   Subscribe

The Suicide’s Soliloquy August 25, 1838, the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, carried an unsigned poem, thirty-six lines long. It stands out for two reasons: first, its subject is suicide; second, its author was most likely a twenty-nine-year-old politician and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin relates how historians regard a broken off engagement to Mary Todd as the trigger to his famous depression, but it was his perceived failure as politician, she maintains, that fed Lincoln's "black dog". (For his depression, Lincoln probably took "blue mass", a drug prescribed to treat "hypochondriasis," a vague term that included melancholia). Lincoln's medical history file is here
posted by matteo (12 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through
Though I in hell should rue it!

Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

posted by matteo at 11:18 AM on June 7, 2004

What if Lincoln believed that he had syphilis? And why have there been so many biographies of Lincoln that don't even mention Herndon's letter, let alone ponder the implications?
Gore Vidal is about the only one who brought the whole thing into the open, when he said on the Larry King television program, that both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were infected with syphilis.


As for Lincoln's syphilis, I use the words Herndon himself used: "About the year 1835-36 Mr. Lincoln went to Bearstown and during a devilish passion had connection with a girl and caught the disease [syphilis]. Lincoln told me this . . . About hte year 183637 Lincoln moved to Springfield . . At this time I suppose that the disease hung to him and, not wishing to trust our physicians, he wrote to Doctor Drake." Since there is no reason for Herndon to lie about this, I suppose we should all agree upon it as a fact. But since no saint has ever had syphilis, Herddon is a liar and so the consensus finds against him.
The New York Review of Books, August 18, 1988
posted by matteo at 11:27 AM on June 7, 2004

So Lincoln was a goth?
posted by eatitlive at 11:35 AM on June 7, 2004

Winston Churchill called it the black dog.

No, silly: Churchill was a Led Zeppelin fan.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:46 AM on June 7, 2004

“Abraham Lincoln's first business as owner of a dry goods store was a flop. He was later appointed postmaster in his township and had the worst efficiency record in the county.”
At each stage of his life Lincoln knew failure and defeat.
He lost his first job, as clerk in Denton Offutt's store, when Offutt's business enterprises collapsed. Lincoln and Berry, a successor store, failed, leaving the partners in debt. If we give moderate credence to the tale of Ann Rutledge, he was unlucky in love.

In his first campaign for the state Legislature, he placed eighth among 13 candidates. In a campaign document, he had stated that if he were to lose, he “was too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”
After his term in Congress, his political career languished. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 galvanized him into action, but in 1855 and 1858, he experienced two bitter defeats in contests for the Senate. In the 1855 campaign, he came agonizingly close to victory.

Failure characterized the first two years of the Lincoln presidency. On the battlefield there were few Union victories. McClellan dithered and Lincoln forbore. Support ebbed for his centrist policies. The Radicals pushed him to declare emancipation a war aim while conservatives tried to pull him away from making it “a war about the Negro.” His party suffered losses in the mid-term elections. David Donald reports “he told the Cabinet that at times, 'he felt almost ready to hang himself.'

posted by matteo at 11:56 AM on June 7, 2004

Feeling depressed? You're in good company: While these lists overlap, none of them are complete. Is there a link?
posted by Shane at 12:12 PM on June 7, 2004

In addition to all the depressing failures mentioned above, including the possible syphilis, Lincoln had a nightmare marriage, (the famous "bad bargain," that he clung all the more tightly to) -- a union so horrid that in gran'pa's day, it was commonly said of a fellow bound to a termagant, that "his marriage is wors'n Lincoln's." When Lincoln finally enjoyed a bit of success, being elected to the Presidency of the United States, half the nation immediately seceded -- not coincidentally, but as a direct consequence of Lincoln's election, carrying out of their vociferous threats to leave the union if Abe Lincoln took office (much like those movie stars who threatened to move to Europe if George W. Bush won the last election -- which, like Lincoln's, lacked a clear cut majority-winnning outcome). Not only that, but he immediately found himself presiding over one of the greatest and most senseless slaughters in human history -- an orgy of violence among individuals for the most part virtually indistinguishable from one another -- over issues with a thousand potential resolutions short of violence. His children and friends are dying one by one throughout his presidency, his wife is being a bitch, and he is foreseeing his own death in dreams. He finally dies a horrid, public death, that plunges the country into the nightmare of reconstruction, and all the subsequent evils of race relations we live with in America today.
I say with all reverence for our martyred president and his glorious prose style, that he was a man surrounded with bad vibes from some point early in life, and he brought his dark cloud to the nation as a whole. It might be said that the very existence of Lincoln brought about the Civil War (the people who hated him really, really, really hated him, much like our the Bush and Clinton-haters of today -- and would cut off their noses to spite their own faces to cross him).
Contrast Lincoln, now, with sunny old Ronald Reagan, a man who it is estimated saved 35 lives as a young lifeguard, an entertainer, and life-loving optimist. Shallow, un-writerly Reagan brought his good-vibes to the country as a whole, and not only led us out of the stupendously despairing national mood of the 1970s, he presided over our greatest international victory over a sworn enemy -- the fall of the Soviet Empire -- without a pitched battle, and barely any loss of life as a direct consequence, anywhere in the world.
Freudians say the president is our "national penis," but I would say he is that and something else -- the national (for want of a better word) "spirit." So when you're voting, you've got to think, whose vibes to you want? George bush's? No way. For all his personal charm and probable decency, he owns a creepy-weird mojo, possibly dating back to his drug and alcohol days, which required a major religious intervention to get him out of. Do you want John Kerry's vibes? Uh-uh. The dead and living of the Vietnam era still battle in his soul, and he drags a swampy, wet mojo behind him. My vote would go to Hillary Clinton, who invoked a Walt Whitmanesque joy at her college valedictorian speech, and who moves in clouds of pinkish splendor through the dark precincts of power. We need her magic.
posted by Faze at 1:11 PM on June 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

Oh God. Can we keep Ronnie Raygun out of this thread? He has enough threads of his own. Just sayin': exercize some control on the political proselytizing, please, especially when it's barely tangentially related to the matter at hand. No MeTa callout necessary, I hope.
posted by Shane at 1:37 PM on June 7, 2004

I'm sure that modern politics would have pushed him over the edge.

"that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." - So, when did it perish (1968?)
posted by daveg at 3:49 PM on June 7, 2004

I feel like I'm surrounded by Lincoln all of a sudden. Did everybody else watch C-SPAN in-depth with the Lincoln biographer, too?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:33 PM on June 7, 2004

That's a far cry from the Lincoln of earlier years--when he was prone to mood swings, outbursts of rage, insomnia, and forgetfulness. Researchers now theorize that Lincoln for years was being poisoned by mercury-laden pills he was taking for depression.
I've always wondered if WW2 might have ended differently (perhaps Germany could have fought the Allies to a stalemate?) if someone had told Hitler to ease off the five-times-daily dose of methamphetamine injected into his buttocks by Dr Morell. Hitler might have got more sleep, flew into less rages, suffered from less paranoia, and made fewer stupid decisions.

Thankfully, nobody did.
posted by meehawl at 5:34 PM on June 7, 2004

Great post, Matteo. The last "doctorzebra" link in the FPP is particularly good.

Faze, I'm kind of speechless at your analysis.
posted by pmurray63 at 10:17 PM on June 7, 2004

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