The specifics are hard to pin down. We can reconstruct events, analyze evidence, and form a number of convincing interpretations, but there are times in which we must simply admit that there are things we just don’t know.
Take, for example, the “fatal first” of January 1841. Something caused Abraham Lincoln to plunge into a profound depression. He dropped his business in the state legislature and isolated himself in his room. Lincoln’s friends feared that he was suicidal.
What happened? What brought this 32 year old member of the state legislature to his knees?
Recent work by Douglas L. Wilson and Joshua Wolf Shenk note that Lincoln’s public life was crumbling around this time. As a four-term member of the state legislature, he had supported the state’s costly internal improvement projects. Not only had the various road, canal, and railroad projects been poorly managed, but they were still incomplete. To make matters worse, the state had taken out massive loans to fund the projects. The first payment was due on January 1, 1841; legislators like Lincoln knew that the state would not be able to make the first payment. In fact, the state couldn’t even afford the interest charges.
Politically, Lincoln and his Whig colleagues had backed themselves into a corner and their political futures did not look bright. Moreover, their ill-advised economic policies had plunged the state into financial ruin.
But that alone does not explain Lincoln’s collapse.
Most interpretations acknowledge that something happened between Lincoln and his fiancée, Mary Todd. They had a fight. If one accepts that they were engaged, then it was abruptly called off. At the very least, the couple stopped talking completely.
But what sparked the fight?
There are a number of intriguing possibilities. Historians have written scores of books and articles on the subject. If you’re interested in reading more about them, send me an email and I can point you in the right direction.
Though Lincoln’s letters do not give us a definitive answer as to what caused his depression, they do give us a great deal of insight into his condition during this period. He appears to have been in great pain—not physical pain, but excruciating mental anguish.
On this day in 1841, Lincoln wrote one such letter to his law partner, John Todd Stuart, who was in Washington, serving as a member of Congress. Keep in mind, Stuart was not simply Lincoln’s law partner—he was also Mary’s cousin. Notice that Lincoln’s remarks are incredibly diplomatic. He cannot very well bury Mary Todd to her cousin, yet he is terribly honest when he talks about his current condition:
For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. 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.
The letter seems to indicate that Stuart is already familiar with what sparked Lincoln’s current depression. In a previous letter, Stuart had suggested that he might be able to use his position in Congress to secure an appointment for Lincoln, perhaps an appointment to a new location, far away from Springfield, in which he might get over his current sadness and recover his former vitality. Lincoln closes his letter to Stuart by thanking his law partner for looking into the possibility:
The matter you speak of on my account, you may attend to as you say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this, because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any bussiness here, and a change of scene might help me. If I could be myself, I would rather remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more.
Stuart followed through on his offer. He wrote to Secretary of State Daniel Webster in recommendation of Lincoln for a diplomatic post in South America, but nothing came of it.
While we know that Lincoln eventually recovered and his relationship with Mary Todd was indeed salvageable, I think we must also acknowledge that there is a great deal about the fatal first that we simply do not know.