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It has been argued that there is a correlation between creative genius and mental illness. This is so because many of history's most famous artists, composers, writers and leaders have suffered the symptoms of mental illnesses. Such names include Sir Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, John Keats, Michelangelo just to mention but a few. Study was however limited to this area until the turn of this century. Kaufmann and Baer (2002: 23) wrote an article that showed the predisposition of female poets towards mental illnesses. Though their article dwelt more on female artists, it nevertheless supports this papers assertion that most of the most distinguished individuals through the ages showed the most signs of mental illnesses. According to Kaufman and Baer (2002), "The adage that creativity and madness are linked together is by and large supported by the existing research"(p. 182). This paper is going to analyze the life of Abraham Lincoln as a case study to show that there is a strong positive correlation between traits associated with creativity and traits associated with mental illness.
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Abraham Lincoln behavior
According to Wolf Shenk (38) Abraham Lincoln was different from day one. Though brought up in the rural areas where farming was the mainstay of the economy and prowess in it a measure of manhood, Lincoln was a thorough reader, intellectually adventurous and a very sensitive individual often regarded as lazy by neighbors. To those who interacted with him, there is no element of his character was so marked, so obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy. William Herndon, his law partner remarked 'his melancholy dripped from him as he walked along' (Shenk 44). Lincoln's life, even in his moment of glory, was one long litany of sorrow. At times Lincoln would be so much overcome by his melancholy until he would give in to his condition and refuse to wake up from bed. At search times Lincoln would behave so strangely that his friends would fear for his life. On one account after the death of Ann Rutledge whom Abraham is believed to have had some interest in, he secluded himself after the burial, walking alone in the woods with a gun and talking of suicide. This alarmed many of the villagers who feared that he was suicidal. A couple sympathized with him and took him in for two weeks. After the death of his sister Sarah Lincoln in 1828 and that of his son Willis , Abraham cried profusely. His depressive episodes of 1840-41 though thought by many to be as a result of his engagement break up with Mary Todd had more to it than that. Abraham had disappointments in the state Legislature (Shenk 46). He was a champion of ambitious public works projects that included networks of roads, rails and canals meant to open up the hinterlands to economic development. The economic depression of 1837 frustrated these projects and since Abraham had put his bet on this he was deeply disturbed. He knew his career was on the firing line. Lincoln would during most of the times be alone, walking in the woods or riding his horse in the fields.
How his character helped him
Abraham's melancholy propelled his career. More often it worked well for him. People would sympathize with his sorrowful demeanor and come to his aid. This is well illustrated in his encounter with Joshua Speed. As a young man Lincoln turned up to practice law in Springfield, Illinois with nothing but two saddlebags (Shenk 38). A store proprietor Joshua Speed welcomed him and took his bags upstairs. When Abraham's store failed and was on the brink of being declared bankrupt, his friends sympathized with him and organized for him to be appointed the postmaster of New Salem. Nevertheless his debts still caught up with him and one of his creditors seized his horse, his compass, and his chain-all his surveying equipment, and put them up for auction. James Short passing by met Abraham mopping around and heard him say 'he may let the whole thing go.' Short was so touched he went and bought the equipment himself for the price of $120 and gave it back to Lincoln (Shenk 42).
His sorrowful demeanor and a laidback personality helped him too in unintended way. Due to his character Lincoln was more than often undermined by his competitors. They however did it at their own peril. When he stood for nomination to be the Republican flag bearer in the 1860 election, no one thought he would win the nomination leave alone the Presidency. When he won the presidency, many did not expect him to last long leave alone winning a second term. Lincoln creativity would also be used when it mattered most. Again in the Republic nomination, it was like a foregone conclusion that Seward of New York would win. In the Illinois Republic gathering Abraham pulled a surprise when after her introduction, a distant relation entered the hall with two split logs having a banner written: Abraham Lincoln; The Rail candidate. That worked up the crowd so much that he became a frontrunner (Shenk 71). When afterwards he was called to speak in New York, he employed his oratory skills so well that the nomination was all but a foregone conclusion. .
Abraham's experiences had also hardened his will. He could stand against any opposition. He could still stand in the face of great disappointments. It should be lost that this is man who educated himself against all discouragement. When he went down in depression in 1831, Lincoln confessed that to remain as he was it was impossible; he either died or made his life better (Shenk 43). This was again to help him during the civil war. The war was so intense, the losses too much that it needed one with a lot of perseverance to hold on. Abraham was discouraged and criticized but his cabinet, his generals and friends but against all odds he pushed ahead with the war. Abraham was also endowed with an eye that could see ahead of time. This is manifested by his position on the slavery issue and the civil war. He was always ahead of public opinion. He stood against slavery when it was so unpopular to do so because he saw ahead of time that slavery was not sustainable and would eventually die. He declared war against advice from many around him because he knew only war would save the union. The public many years later would agree with her position (Soggie 14).
Abraham was also a man who could pursue a course he thought worthy against all odds. He announced the Emancipation of slaves at a time many never expected. He however said that action more than anything else gave him happiness in life and satisfaction that he had done the right thing. Unlike many politicians, Abraham stood for what he believed in but not what was popular. Abraham's acquaintance with failure molded him into a hard-headed realist (Weiten 56). He did not expect too much and when failure came, it was not to him unusual but rather a normal part of life. At the beginning of the civil war, the Union Army suffered a lot of defeats and setbacks that any normal person would have reconsidered the war but not Lincoln. His melancholic third eye allowed him to keep focused on the main goal and eventually it would pay off (Shenk 102).
Abraham's character also gave him a lot of perseverance. He persevered with people even when he didn't necessarily have to do it. He endured insults from Edwin Stanton, his war secretary even though he could sack him. General George McClellan despised him and showed him arrogance but Lincoln was for a long time patient with him. When he took a decision however Lincoln stood with it. He was patient to give everybody time and to listen to all but his decision was his.
Abraham was gifted with a higher insight than the normal human being. He was somehow mysterious. His performance is rated the best of an American president and children are taught how to emulate him. According to Shenk (127), over the course of his adulthood, Lincoln passed from fear to engagement to transcendence. He decided how to live and faced every challenge with courage and determination.