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Reviewed by:
  • Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, and: American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
  • Michael B. Chesson
Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. By Joshua Wolf Shenk. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Pp. 350. $25.00.)
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. By Michael W. Kauffman. (New York: Random House, 2004. Pp. 508. $15.95.)

Lincoln's Melancholy argues that Lincoln was mentally ill, a victim of clinical depression that he somehow mastered and used as the spur that drove him to the presidency. Lincoln may have inherited his condition from both parents. Usually portrayed as abstinent, he drank for medicinal reasons, even quaffing champagne, and may have used opiates and cocaine. But he was definitely not homosexual, probably consorting with prostitutes while mingling in what passed for high society in provincial Springfield, Illinois.

Shenk, a gifted amateur, is sincere and well-meaning. Like claims in the past few decades that Lincoln suffered from Marfan syndrome or venereal disease (as did one-half of all American men) or that he was bisexual, this book is plausible speculation. It would make a good topic for high school debaters as its thesis cannot be proved or disproved. Shenk markets himself with a vengeance by indulging in tiresome name-dropping of various celebrities in the text. Several returned the favor with dust jacket–blurbs.

The author lacks professional credentials as a psychiatrist or psychologist; however, he suffers from depression himself, which evidently makes him an expert. Shenk's ignorance of history betrays him repeatedly. He thinks that the first slaves landed at Jamestown in 1619 from a Dutch ship that was lost, but there is no proof of their status or their arrival point. Some experts have suspected that the ship was British. Readers may be startled to learn that mechanical cotton reapers were clattering across the Old South. Shiloh was fought in February. Fredericksburg had 26,000 Union casualties. It was not Lincoln's commitment to emancipation that almost cost him reelection in 1864, but a war that had become a stalemate until Sherman's capture of Atlanta, as Grant was bogged down around Petersburg. Lincoln lived to see the Thirteenth Amendment ratified into law by the states.

Shenk admits that his thesis emerged in the early stages of his research. Scholars collect and analyze evidence and confront contradictory material. Shenk [End Page 98] omits facts that do not support his case for Lincoln's depression, as he does on other topics, including Abe's humor (little mention of the highly sexed, smutty nature of his wit); his kindness to animals (but not his cruelty); and his deep religious convictions (no mention of his lack of belief in an afterlife or his focus on God the Father rather than Christ the Redeemer).

Medical authorities do not agree on the causes of depression, or its definition, even today. Reviewers for mental health journals will have to judge the soundness of Shenk's diagnosis of Lincoln's psychological state—two centuries after his birth. Most men, then and now, would be depressed if they had his marriage and lack of political success until 1860. Looking in a mirror would have been enough to depress Lincoln. Reading this book will suffice for most historians.

American Brutus will be far more enjoyable for Civil War buffs, particularly those who believe in a Confederate conspiracy. Ironically, Kauffman's thesis is that the assassination was John Wilkes Booth's, and the conspiracy his, with no connection to the Rebel government. Kauffman combines a biography of Booth and his family with a riveting account of the events leading up to Lincoln's murder: the deed itself; the pursuit of the conspirators; their capture, trial, and sentencing; and a coda on the last years of the surviving participants. Even assassination fans will learn new things about this controversial event, but for novices it is a detailed and authoritative narrative of the entire subject, a competent update, yet one that is unlikely to remain unchallenged as the definitive work. Two more titles on the subject have appeared recently.

Kauffman raises more questions than...


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