President Abraham Lincoln: Psychohistory and Psychological Profile

About President Abraham Lincoln, a psychological profile or psychoanalysis of his life.


Lincoln began life with a strong sense of his own inferiority. His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, was an illegitimate child, and young Lincoln was painfully aware of the fact. This circumstance, combined with the bitter poverty of his own youth, produced a desperate desire to excel, to win what Lincoln called "the race of life." When the young man found out that he could often outtalk and outthink even well-educated aristocrats, this desire became a burning passion. His friend and law partner Herndon aptly described Lincoln as "a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions." Yet even in his vigorous pursuit of political success, Lincoln's personal impulses remained unfailingly generous, decent, and human. As a young man, he was considered "soft" and sentimental by frontier standards; on one notable occasion he risked a punishing brawl when he stopped a gang of boys who were torturing a tortoise with burning sticks. It is likely that the hard-boiled Thomas Lincoln felt some contempt for his oldest son's love for storytelling, poetry, and books, and it is certain that there was lasting bad blood between the 2 men. In 1851 when his father lay dying, Lincoln refused a request that he come to the sickbed, and also failed to attend the funeral. This isolation from those closest to him--begun with the death of Lincoln's mother when the boy was only 9--became a lifelong habit. In later life, Lincoln's extended periods of unbroken silence, and his recurrent melancholy, often drove his wife Mary to the point of fury. As Lincoln's friend and campaign manager David Davis observed: "I knew the man so well; he was the most reticent, secretive man I ever saw or expect to see." Finally, it must be said that a seemingly endless succession of personal tragedies gave Lincoln a deep sense of mortality and the ultimate futility of all human effort. At the age of 3 1/2, young Abe watched his baby brother die; when he was 9 his mother passed away; when he was 18 his sister died. As a husband and father, Lincoln had to cope with his wife's near-insanity and the death of 2 of his sons. When his son Willie died at the age of 11 in 1862, the President wept uncontrollably. It is small wonder that he was haunted by visions in the last years of his life. "I have all my life been a fatalist," Lincoln wrote. "What is to be will be, or rather, I have found all my life as Hamlet says, "There is a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will.'"

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