Was Abraham Lincoln bipolar

Updated: 4/28/2022
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Bipolar disorder is a difficult condition to diagnose and it is even more so if anyone tries to apply it posthumously. I cannot diagnose Lincoln and there is no conclusive evidence to say that Lincoln was Bipolar. However, there are compelling evidences to suggest that Lincoln indeed suffered from Bipolar Disorder.

Lincoln's Depression

It is certain that Lincoln suffered from Major Depression, the earliest indication was in 1835 with the death of Anne Rutledge. Lincoln's Depression continued to plague him throughout this adult life; in a letter he wrote in 1841 to John T. Stuart, Lincoln describes his "melancholy" as such;

"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 tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me."1

The link from Major Depression to Bipolar Disorder is not a far-fetch one; Depression is an integral part of Bipolar. Depression and Bipolar is part of a continuum of Mood Disorders; which means that if one has Depression, not chemically induced and recurrent bouts of it, there is a significant chance that it might be Bipolar Disorder.

Lincoln's Hypomania?

As we know, the classic signs of Bipolar Disorder is having Depression (mild, minor or major) with Hypomania and Mania. Some evidences of perhaps Hypomania in Lincoln can be seen during times when he did not exhibit Depressive Symptoms. William Herndon wrote,

"He was a sad-looking man; his melancholy dripped from him as he walked. His apparent gloom impressed his friends, and created sympathy for him - one means of his great success. He was gloomy, abstracted, and joyous - rather humorous - by turns; but I do not think he knew what real joy was for many years... The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature."2

I highlighted that part to emphasize a crucial point in Bipolar Disorder; which is that it is a cyclical Mood Disorder where a person goes from having Hypomania and Depression in turns. For classic Bipolar type II, Depression will last longer than Hypomania and when the Hypomania enters, it displays itself (in some cases) as a just being happy.

However, it is not just being happy.

Hypomania has many symptoms that seems like 'normal' behavior. Indeed, when viewed separately, these behaviors does not seem at all strange but collectively, it is part of one large Bipolar picture. This is the contention for Lincoln's status of Bipolarity; does Lincoln exhibit Hypomanic symptoms? There are examples; behaviors typically associated with Hypomania, and can be seen present in Lincoln which include;

Pressured Speech (the compulsion to keep talking) - There were times when Lincoln loves to talk and tell stories, anecdotes and jokes, one after another. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson was one. Several others were in his Cabinet. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said that before he announced the draft Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln "was reading a book of some kind, which seemed to amuse him. It was a little book. He finally turned to us and said: 'Gentlemen, did you ever read anything from Artemus Ward? Let me read you a chapter that is very funny.' Not a member of the Cabinet smiled; as for myself, I was angry, and looked to see what the President meant. It seemed to me like buffoonery. He, however, concluded to read us a chapter from Artemus Ward, which he did with great deliberation, and, having finished, laughed heartily, without a member of the Cabinet joining in the laughter. 'Well,' he said, 'let's have another chapter,' and he read another chapter, to our great astonishment. I was considering whether I should rise and leave the meeting abruptly, when he threw his book down, heaved a sigh, and said: 'Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do."3

Racing Thoughts/Flight of Ideas - In the hypomanic state, people may feel that they cannot slow their minds down, and that their speeding thoughts are crafted exceptionally well. Some examples are speaking or writing in rhyme or alliteration without planning it first; quick responses to people talking; or the ability to improvise easily. " Henry Villard covered President-elect Lincoln's activities in Springfield and the daily meetings he held with visitors at the State Capitol: "The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily "levees," however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity.Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his preeminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes. He never was at a loss for a story or an anecdote to explain a meaning or enforce a point, the aptness of which was always perfect. His supply was apparently inexhaustible, and the stories sounded so real that it was hard to determine whether he repeated what he had heard from others, or had invented himself."4

Historian Wiliam Lee Miller said that "Lincoln was indeed a man of ideas, but he was a man of his own ideas. And these ideas were confined, almost of necessity, in the mature man, to a relatively narrow range that fit his purposes. Within that range he was a thinker indeed, but he was not one, like Thomas Jefferson, who wished (or said he wished) that he could get out of politics and get back to his books and his violin, and who ranged across the world of thought and set up shop as something of a philosopher himself."5

Irritability - is also a common feature of Hypomania which can display itself in various degrees of anger and rage. Historian Michael Burlingame noted: "Lincoln allegedly said that he grew angry only when frustrated intellectually: 'When a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way that I could not understand. I do not think I ever got angry at anything else in my life; but that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since. Nearly the end of the Civil War, he acknowledged that he could become deeply infuriated at people as well. He told Virginia Governor Francis H. Pierpont that, amid the trials he had endured, "I have been angry once since I came to the White House. Then, if I had encountered the man who caused my anger, I certainly would have hurt him." Actually, noted Burlingame, "In the White House, Lincoln lost his temper more than once, despite what he may had told Governor Pierpont of Virginia. Although long-suffering, he found it difficult to tolerate insolence"6

There are numerous other behaviors and supporting examples; however, the point is that Lincoln do exhibit Hypomanic symptoms. If one has a comprehensive understanding of Bipolar Disorder as well as the diligence to sift through Abraham Lincoln's history and biography, one can then find many evidences of a symptomatic illness that goes beyond his Depression and propelled to become one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Coupled that with his obvious Depression, many psychiatrist concluded that Lincoln was very possibly having Bipolar Disorder.

In short

Even now, Psychiatrist around the world are still learning about this condition and ways to properly diagnose it. For now, the DSM-IV is a good guideline to identify classic Bipolar but new research has found there are many variations of Bipolar Disorder. Looking at his personality, behavior and depression, there are many that believes he does suffer from Bipolar.


1,2 Bernard, Susan 2008, President Abraham Lincoln and Depression, Wellness Writer, retrieved 31 August 2010

3 Don Seitz, Artemus Ward: A Biography and Bibliography, p. 113-114 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919; New York: Beekman, 1974).

4 Henry Villard, Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, Volume I, 1835-1862, p. 143-144.

5 William Lee Miller, Lincoln's Virtues, p. 274.

6 Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Egbert L. Viele), p. 453.

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